China’s outposts present additional potential threats for the U.S. military to track and counter. Three of the outposts in the Spratly group of islands are full-fledged military bases that host airfields, surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles, radars and sensors that allow China to see and hear almost everything that happens in the area. One in the Paracels, farther north, also has an airfield, and China has landed a heavy bomber there.
Adm. Thomas said China already flies patrol aircraft from the Spratly outposts and could easily operate fighter jets from the sites.
The islands are “giant information sponges out there providing a much, much better targeting picture of the area than China would have if those bases weren’t there,” said Thomas Shugart, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank that specializes in national-security issues.
When they were first being built, a lot of people were “pretty dismissive of those island bases—‘Oh, we’d be able to scrape them clean with Tomahawk [missiles] in the first hour of the conflict,’” said Mr. Shugart. “I don’t think people see it that way anymore.”
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