Not long before the destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur recently conducted freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) off the Chinese-occupied Paracel Islands, an interesting maritime exercise took place in waters off southern mainland China. The images released in the public domain are interesting to note; many of the ships have hull numbers that carry the prefix 湛渔, or Zhanyu (the prefix Zhan for Zhanjiang, where the vessel is based, and Yu for fishery). This feature, alongside their distinct physical attributes, might give the impression that they are commercial deep-sea seiners and trawlers, which typically populate China’s vast fishing fleet.
But closer examination shows these ships to be no mere fishing vessels. Even though some of them, for instance Zhanyu 819, 820 and 822, have what appear to be seine winches astern, the cluster of antennae on board was conspicuous. Moreover, instead of commercial livery, all ships pictured were painted in typical People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) gray. These were probably some of the rare few high-resolution pictures which detail the bulk of assets belonging to the PLAN South China Sea Fleet Unit 488, based in Maxie, Zhanjiang. This obscure flotilla has sister units serving with the other two PLAN fleets, also equipped with such intelligence trawlers (AGIs), dubbed the Type-792 class.
Though part of the PLAN order of battle, these AGIs should be clearly distinguished from purpose-built intelligence ships such as the Type-815 Dongdiao class, which lack the “fishing vessels” disguise (it clearly has no fishing gear and sports a conventional warship design) and have also been frequently observed. But these innocuous-looking “fishing vessels” that roam the disputed waters in the East and South China Seas were often relegated to the shadows of their glamorous PLAN combat brethren. Despite having existed since the 1950s, these enigmatic forces—locally nicknamed “sea phantoms” (or “little blue men” as Andrew Erickson and Conor Kennedy called them)—and the ramifications of their activities have been underexamined.
Read more: http://nationalinterest.org/feature/chinas-sea-phantom-fleet-prowls-the-open-waters-15105