India decided to postpone testing a long-range ballistic missile after it emerged that two Chinese ‘research’ ships were sailing in the region

NEW DEHI: India’s concern over Chinese “research” ships of the Yuan Wang series frequenting its maritime boundaries has been termed by some international and domestic strategic watchers as a “paranoia” and something that is based on an “incorrect” assessment. However, a detailed analysis of the capabilities of these ships reveals that for all practical purposes, they are capable of listening, detecting and observing signals and communication that a “research” ship should not be able to do, ideally. These floating and technologically advanced espionage centres are important for Chinese strategists, as until now they have not been able to develop a strong network of human intelligence in India because of multiple reasons.

The threat posed by these highly advanced Chinese vessels was first raised by India when one such ship, the Yuan Wang 5, announced that it would dock for a week at the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota in August. Despite India’s aggressive posturing with the Sri Lankan authorities, it was unable to stop the ship from entering the port, which is owned by China because of Colombo’s inability to pay its debts to the Chinese.

The said port is located in the extreme southern tip of Sri Lanka, about 450 km from India’s Kanyakumari as the crow flies. Western intelligence agencies, tasked with tracking technological developments in the Chinese sphere, for years have been warning the relevant stakeholders and policymakers of the enormous capabilities of these ships that carry technological capabilities that match similar tools possessed by some of the most advanced global intelligence agencies.

The security concerns posed by these ships can be gauged from the fact that India, which had issued a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen), first for 10-11 November 2022, and then 23-24 November 2022, for carrying out the test of a long-range ballistic missile (an advanced version of Agni missile), was forced to postpone it after it emerged that Yuan Wang 6 was sailing in the Indian Ocean Region off the coast of Singapore. Yuan Wang 5, at the time, was sailing near Lombok Strait, Indonesia.

These decisions, officials say, are not based on a “false alarm”, but should be read in the light of the impact these ships can pose considering the fact that they have been used by China to monitor, map and relay details of China’s manned and unmanned space missions in the past and in recent times.

While the Yuan Wang 5 was commissioned in September 2007, Yuan Wang 6 started sailing in April 2008. Apart from 5 and 6, the PLA Navy also operates Yuan Wang 7, the most advanced of these tracking ships, which was commissioned in July 2016. Yuan Wang 6—which was built by the Marine Design & Research Institute of China (MARIC), among China’s oldest and largest shipbuilding research institutes—uses and produces onboard electricity to an extent that it can power a city of 3 lakh people, the population of Aizawl, Mizoram, for multiple days.

While China and allied agencies term these ships as research ships that carry out scientific experiments, all the Yuan Wangs have been fitted with C- and S-band mono-pulse tracking radar (that tracks radio signal to provide direction and location), cinetheodolite laser ranging and tracking systems, velocimetry systems, computer system to track and control spacecraft, execute different level of communication through HF, ULF, UHF, and SATCOM communications. These technologies enable Yuan Wang ships to complete missions that include monitoring and tracking advanced space vehicles including rockets, spacecraft, launch vehicles, satellites, and aircraft in real time.

According to officials, the control technology, including the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System, used in the Yuan Wangs are modelled on US and Soviet systems, which means that many of these ships have very advanced technology, of the same level used by US defence agencies. The US intelligence agencies, in the recent past, have unravelled multiple instances of US defence and intelligence officials being caught either while in the process of transferring advanced defence technologies to Chinese agents or after they have transferred these technologies.

In June 2016, Wenxia Man, a Chinese-born naturalized US citizen, was convicted for conspiring with an agent in China to export illegally to China the MQ–9 Reaper, Predator B unmanned aerial vehicle, as well as engines used in the F-35, F-22, and F-16 jet fighters and technical data associated with these platforms.

Amin Yu, a Chinese national and permanent resident of the United States, was caught while exporting commercial technology used in marine submersible vehicles to conspirators at China’s Harbin Engineering University, which closely works with People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy.

Similarly, in March 2016, Su Bin, another Chinese national, for six years, from 2008 to 2014, stole US military technical data on the Boeing C-17 Globemaster military transport aircraft and jet fighter aircraft, and forwarded the same to Chinese agencies. In August 2016, Kun Shan Chun, a Chinese-born naturalized US citizen, who was working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as an electronics technician, was found to be passing sensitive information to China on, among other things, surveillance technologies used by the FBI.

And these are only reported cases. The more serious ones are not made public. Given their strong sensing and data-relay capabilities, Yuan Wang ships have the ability to detect and track foreign satellites and to support military operations. The first two of these ships—Yuan Wang-1 and Yuan Wang-2 ships—were launched way back in the 1970s. China became only the fourth country to master space tracking technology after the United States, Russia and France. The latest of this series, Yuan Wang-7, performed maritime tracking of manned spaceflight Shenzhou-11 and other space missions later, which is an indication of the advanced, complex system it carries onboard.

Experts believe that Yuan Wang 5 and 6 have more advanced technologies than their predecessors, including onboard optical fibre cables networked to share resources and quickly transmit data to other assets such as mission centres in real-time. The antennas in Yuan Wang-6, officials say, can transmit signals within a 400,000 km radius of the Earth.

Yuan Wang-5 was officially handed over to the Satellite Maritime Tracking and Control (SMTC) based in Jiangyin on 29 September 2007. It is equipped with a whole range of space tracking and communications systems, including an S-band and C-band tracking and control system, and a C-band pulse radar. The ship is capable of tracking space launch vehicles, satellites, manned spacecraft, and other types of spacecraft, as well as real-time voice/image communication and data exchange with the land-based control centre.

The ship was joined by Yuan Wang-6 on 12 April 2008, primarily to provide support to China’s Project 921 manned spaceflight. According to Chinese media reports, one of the visible differences between Yuan Wang-6 and Yuan Wang-5 is that the former has a control hall occupying two decks.

Under the existing laws that govern the right of passage through seas and oceans, India or for that matter, any other country, does not have much option to deter such mobile spy centres from snooping into their activities as these ships operate in areas which are outside India’s exclusive zone. India has as of now, only one similar ship, INS Dhruv.