The Chinese military has increased its aggressiveness against American surveillance aircraft in the Pacific, conducting more than 180 risky interceptions in the past two years, according to the Pentagon, more than in the previous decade.
According to authorities, since the fall of 2021, Chinese Air Force and Navy fighter pilots have swooped to within 5 meters of American fighter jets, unloading chaff in a brazen display of intimidation.
They said that when close air encounters from allies and partners are included, the number rises to nearly 300.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon released previously unpublic videos and photos of more than a dozen such maneuvers over the East and South China Seas, reviewed by The Washington Post, in which Chinese fighter jets harassed reconnaissance planes. Unarmed Americans are legally patrolling in international airspace.
In January, a US RC-135 was flying over the South China Sea when a Chinese J-11 fighter, with two missiles on each wing, quickly approached to within about 30 feet and stayed there for more than 15 minutes.
In May of last year, a Chinese fighter approached a Navy EP-3 spy plane patrolling in the East China Sea at full speed and, according to the Pentagon, crossed under the nose of the aircraft, causing the American pilot to lose visual contact. It then approached laterally again to within 15 feet, flying just below the American plane.
In another incident, a Chinese fighter repeatedly flew above and below a US reconnaissance plane, displaying its weapons, in June 2022. When the US pilot established radio contact with the Chinese fighter, it responded in English, according to the Pentagon, with an insult.
“It’s harassment, pure and simple,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, a former fighter pilot who led air operations in the Pacific in the mid-2000s. Deptula condemned the approaches, which could lead to a mistake And a collision. “There is absolutely no reason for that in international airspace.”
Deptula recalled how a Chinese fighter collided with a Navy EP-3 in April 2001, killing the Chinese pilot and causing the American plane, with 24 crew members, to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island, resulting in to an international incident. The Americans were detained and interrogated for 11 days by Chinese authorities before being released. That incident is etched in the memories of U.S. military aviators and highlights the tragic consequences that can result from aggressive and unprofessional aerial behavior.
China’s sharp increase in risky encounters is concerning because it undermines the ability of the United States and other nations to conduct safe patrols in international airspace, senior military and defense officials say.
“Since the fall of 2021, we have seen a serious increase in actions that have brought their aircraft much closer” to U.S. aircraft, even during “higher risk” operations such as mid-air refueling, said Adm. John C. Aquilino, of the Navy’s “Top Gun” advanced fighter school and now commander of all US military forces in the Indo-Pacific.
Their allies and partners are suffering similar attacks. Last year, a Chinese J-16 fighter pierced the nose of an Australian P-8 patrol aircraft, releasing a round of debris that was ingested by the P-8’s jet engine. “These actions are simply unacceptable.
“These actions are unacceptable,” Aquilino said. “And they do not comply with international law.”
In a statement obliquely alluding to the United States, Chinese embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu declared: “A certain non-regional country has attempted to stir up trouble and incite confrontation in the South China Sea and endanger the regional peace and stability. China has always opposed it.” He said China and Southeast Asian countries are trying to develop a “code of conduct in the South China Sea” and that “countries outside the region have to respect [those] efforts.”