The U.S. intelligence community thinks the “hundreds” of surface-to-air missiles that China recently shipped to its Hainan Island in the South China Sea will be moved to the country’s nearby and disputed man-made islands in the coming months, two military officials told Fox News on Saturday.
The plan follows what U.S. intelligence officials say is Beijing’s expressed desire to protect its three airstrips on three of the man-made islands.
The missiles now on Hainan island, China’s largest in the South China Sea, are a combination of short- medium- and long-range weapons. And they include one battalion of the advanced SA-21 system, a long-range missle system that is based on fourth-generation Russian software and capable of knocking out aircraft from as far away as 250 miles.
The total number of surface-to-air missiles on Hainan could reach 500, one of the military officials told Fox News.
China shipping more surface-to-air missiles from the mainland to the South China Sea was first reported Friday by Fox News.
The new missiles have been seen by American intelligence satellites on China’s provincial island province of Hainan, which is not part the disputed islands.
Officials think the location is “only temporary” and likely a training site before the missiles are deployed in early 2017 to the contested Spratley Islands or Woody Island.
The two missile systems seen on Hainan island are known as the CSA-6b and HQ-9. The CSA-6b is a combined close-in missile system with a range of 10 miles and also contains anti-aircraft guns. The longer-range HQ-9 system has a range of 125 miles, and is roughly based on the Russian S-300 system.
This latest deployment of Chinese military equipment comes days after the Chinese returned an unclassified underwater research drone in the South China Sea. The Pentagon accused a Chinese Navy ship of stealing the drone, over the objections of the American crew operating it in international waters to collect oceanographic data.
The escalation comes weeks after President elect-Donald Trump received a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president breaking decades-long “one-China” protocol and angering Beijing.
China has deployed surface-to-air missiles to Woody Island in the South China Sea before, as Fox News first reported in February.