The fleet of ships from across the Asia-Pacific region that has assembled for 2018’s Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises have a familiar observer: a Chinese-intelligence gathering ship. The Dongdiao-class spy ship is operating off the Hawaiian islands, shadowing the exercises to collect information on U.S. and allied forces.
The ship,, is a Type 815 Dongdiao-class intelligence gathering ship. The Type 815 class is built to observe and recover debris from friendly (and not-so-friendly) missile tests. The ship includes a large tracking radar, tracking camera, telemetry dish, and cranes for fishing missile debris out of the water. The Type 815s displace 6,000 tons, making them approximately the size of a frigate. They are only lightly armed, equipped with light, rapid-fire cannons and machine guns.
While China's 815s serve an important domestic task in supporting Chinese missile tests over the water, their features also make them useful for observing tests by other nations, and perhaps collecting a few illicit souvenirs on the way. The ships also pack antennas and other sensors designed to collect radar signals, radio communications, and any other useful electromagnetic emissions for later analysis.
Most navies have only one or two such missile tracking ships. The U.S. military, for example, has the and , but typically snoops on the activities of potential adversaries with a fleet of specialized aircraft. Lacking long-range planes and a plethora overseas bases, the People’s Liberation Army Navy instead built nine Dongdiao ships, the .
The 815s are some of China’s busiest ships. A Type 815 shadowed RIMPAC in 2014, an awkward act at odds with the fact that the Chinese Navy had been officially invited to participate in the multinational exercises. An 815 surveilled the while another in Alaska at virtually the same time, in the same year.
The Type 815 currently monitoring RIMPAC is reportedly sitting in Hawaii’s Exclusive Economic Zone, a legal zone that extends for 200 miles from a country’s shoreline in which it has the exclusive rights to resources. Foreign ships, including naval vessels, can sail through EEZ waters without permission.