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In this image supplied by the Australian Department of Defence, a PLA Navy Intelligence Collection Vessel Haiwangxing was operating off the north-west shelf of Australia, Wednesday, May 11, 2022. Photo: Australian Defence Dept via AP

Chinese spy ship spotted off Australian coast could collect intel on US warships in the region: experts

  • Type 815 ship’s radar aperture can receive frequencies and spectra from warships at long distances, data crucial for electromagnetic warfare: naval observer
  • PLA more interested in Exmouth facility since US-Australian military cooperation was boosted under Aukus agreement, says Chinese military WeChat
The deployment of a sophisticated Chinese navy spy ship to sail close to a naval communication station on the west coast of Australia last week would help Beijing collect information about the United States’ active warships in the region, analysts said.

The Type 815 Dongdiao-class auxiliary general intelligence (AGI) ship Neptune, or Haiwangxing in Chinese, is a new advanced electromagnetic reconnaissance vessel equipped with highly sensitive equipment to deter electronic signals of warships in the region, military experts said.

“The latest visit is a revisit of the PLA Type 815 AGI to Australian waters, implying the PLA has taken tours to the waters as regular missions, as Beijing may take Canberra as a potential rival given the clout of Aukus and the Quad,” said Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung.


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Lu referred to the security pact signed by the United States, Britain and Australia, as well as the informal four-sided defence group comprising the US, India, Australia and Japan.
Last week, Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton described the actions of the Type 815 vessel as an “aggressive act” because it had sailed so far south and on May 11 came within 50 nautical miles of the Harold E Holt naval communications station at Exmouth, a facility used by Australian, US and allies’ submarines.

After the Exmouth stop, the PLA spy ship then apparently changed course and headed east along the coast towards Darwin in the Northern Territory, where the US has military permanently stationed, according to a report published by The War Zone, an American military website, on Friday.

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In July last year, another PLA Dongdiao-class spy ship was spotted operating off the waters of Queensland during Exercise Talisman Sabre, biennial, bilateral US-Australia exercises that include participation by the Japanese and Canadian navies.

“Nowadays we are all talking about all-domain operations involving land, sea, air, space, cyber and the electromagnetic spectrum, with the Type 815 spy ship playing a key role in electromagnetic warfare,” Lu said.

“The radar aperture on the Type 815 spy ship is able to receive a variety of different frequencies and spectra released by Australian and American warships in long distances that could become important data for electromagnetic warfare.”

Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang military science and technology think tank, confirmed that all the radar systems and equipment on the Type 815 were more sophisticated than normal military devices, with the main task of the vessels to track the trajectory of rockets when China launches carrier rockets into space.


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“As the advanced systems to track and send data for flying carrier rockets, the ship is mainly used for finding the specific location at sea for falling rocket wreckages for recycling, but is also good at detecting hypersonic missiles,” Zhou said.

He said Australia might be overreacting because Canberra did not have any hypersonic missiles.

However, an article posted by Asiavikin on a Chinese military WeChat account on Monday said Beijing had been “more interested in the stuff and assets at the Exmouth communications station since Australia has further stepped up its collusion with the US under the Aukus agreement”.

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The article said the US military had set up 13 antenna towers at the Exmouth communications station, with one a very low frequency (VLF) system. The Americans reportedly did not only use the systems for naval communication, but since 2014 had also monitored Chinese satellites in lower orbits after moving a radar system from the Caribbean area to the area.

VLF can penetrate water and a digital signal can communicate with submerged submarines.