Chinese Countermeasure Barge Covered In Radar Reflectors Emerges
The barge, which is festooned with radar reflectors, antennas, defensive launchers, and other gear, first appeared in model form a year ago.
Pictures recently emerged on social media of an interesting Chinese barge covered in various radar reflectors and antennas, and also equipped with a pair of Type 726-series defensive launchers that are used on various People's Liberation Army Navy warships. By all indications, the barge's main purpose is to support countermeasure and electronic warfare and related test and training activities, which could also support the development of new and improved weapons, sensors, and countermeasures. In some ways, it looks similar to decoy target barges that were used by Russia in efforts to protect the Kerch Strait Bridge in Crimea earlier this year.
It's unclear where or when the pictures were taken, but they show the catamaran-hulled barge fitted with more than 30 masts topped with radar reflectors of various shapes and sizes. Mesh screens, the purpose of which is not immediately clear but could be used to segregate certain RF frequencies, are seen hanging between a separate arrays of poles on the deck.
In addition, it has two Type 726-series launchers, which can reportedly fire various types of countermeasures ranging from flares to small decoys with active radiofrequency jammers, one each on the port and starboard side of the craft.
There are also a number of dome-covered antennas, types that are typically associated with satellite communications systems. These could be used to remotely operate or just monitor various onboard sensors and other systems, such as the Type 726s, as well as send information to other ships or land-based facilities for further analysis. The larger dome could be a radar or emitter of some type. There are at least three shelters on the deck, which might contain various equipment and generators to power onboard systems.
Personnel are seen on the barge's deck in the pictures, and there are racks of life raft canisters at one end, but it is possible it could operate uncrewed under certain testing circumstances. It also has a small pilothouse-like structure with windows at one end.
It's not immediately clear if this is the first outing for this type of barge, but the existence of the design, or at least a very closely related one, has been known since at least last year. A model of a barge with a nearly identical design was seen on display at the 2021 Zhuhai Airshow at a booth associated with the state-run China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC). The model at Zhuhai showed a much barer deck, suggesting that it is reconfigurable to meet the demands of specific test and training events.
More interestingly, the model at last year's Zhuhai Airshow appeared to have a pilothouse at one end and propellers at the opposite ends of its catamaran hull, showing it to be self-powered, at least to some degree. Whether or not any propulsion system is installed, or if it is operable, is unclear as there is a tug alongside that is helping to move it, although that really doesn't preclude it from being self-propelled in open waters.
Though we don't know precisely what the purpose of this barge is, it is all but certainly a countermeasures and electronic warfare testbed. The model at the Zhuhai Airshow was shown alongside another model of a land-based, rail-mobile, ship-sized test and training platform that was described as being "a system for mimicking Blue Army electronic warfare threats." In Chinese military parlance, unlike in the U.S. military and most western armed forces, the "red" side represents friendly forces, while the "blue" side is the adversary. It can move along a long track to mimic a ship underway. You can read all about this elaborate land-based system here.
Satellite imagery last year confirmed that the rail-based system had been installed at China's Shuangchengzi missile test range in the Gobi Desert.
As is the case with the land-based platform, the barge is likely able to support the development and validation of new and improved Chinese naval countermeasures, including electronic warfare systems and payloads that can be launched from Type 726-series launchers, and various countermeasures used to defeat enemy capabilities in this regard. It would also be used to mimic various friendly and hostile capabilities for test and evaluation purposes, including to support the testing of new anti-ship missiles and sensors during developmental missions and training exercises. In this role, it can act as a non-destructive target and countermeasures platform with a reconfigurable signiture.
In addition, the barge and the rail-based system appear to be part of a larger push by the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) to acquire large-scale countermeasures and electronic warfare-focused test and training assets to complement the country's already impressive and growing test and training infrastructure. A model of an unusual catamaran vessel was also at the CASIC booth at Zhuhai, which turned out to be a drone mothership ostensibly intended to help train Chinese naval forces to defend against swarms. That ship was launched in May 2021, but it is unclear if has since entered service.
All of this makes good sense as there is an 'arms race' of sorts in the electromagnetic spectrum going on in the Pacific, at least between China and the United States, and particularly in the naval realm. For instance, the U.S. Navy fielded at least multiple new electronic warfare systems over the last few years specifically on ships operating in the Pacific and in response to emerging threats emanating from China, which you read more about here and here. China, for its part, is making strides in this arena, as well.
All of this comes as the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) continues to grow in terms of both size and capability, including its ability to operate further and further beyond China's own shores. The PLAN has notably been expanding its fleets of more modern and often large warships, such as aircraft carriers, large deck amphibious warfare ships, and multi-mission destroyers, in recent years.
The barge, or eventually ones like it, could potentially have operational applications, too. As noted earlier on, in July, the Russian Navy deployed some of its Project 436 target barges, which have a loosely similar configuration in terms of their arrays of radar reflectors, around the Kerch Strait Bridge. This bridge is a highly strategic link that connects Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, which Russian forces have occupied since 2014, to Russia itself.
The ostensible purpose of these Russian barges appeared to be to help ward off any attacks by radar-guided missiles. Russia also subsequently installed radar reflectors around other bridges inside Ukraine for what were believed to be similar reasons. The effectiveness of these defenses in these particular contexts is highly questionable, as The War Zone has explored in detail in the past. However, it might still be possible to use similarly equipped decoy barges to help protect groups of friendly ships or critical infrastructure or to help create "ghost fleets" to confuse enemy forces.
If nothing else the radar-reflector-covered barge is another interesting indicator of the PLA's expanding array of countermeasures and electronic warfare-focused naval test assets, and the last of the three systems displayed in model form at the 2021 Zhuhai Airshow to become a reality.
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