A Chinese military source and observers have warned that US reconnaissance aircraft, i.e., spy planes, flying over the South China Sea are creating risk for civilian aircraft.
The South China Morning Post was told by a source close to the People’s Liberation Army that several types of reconnaissance aircraft were developed by the US military on commercial aeroplane platforms, and they usually follow civil aviation flight routes as cover when approaching China’s airspace.
Reconnaissance activities by the US Air Force near the southern Chinese coast were increased in recent weeks, leading to Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe initiating a 90-minute phone call with his American counterpart, Secretary of Defence Mark Esper, after a night operation by an American E-8C plane on August 5th.
According to the source, the Chinese air control radar system in the southern province of Guangzhou initially identified the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft as a commercial airliner flying at more than 9,000 metres (29,500 feet) over the South China Sea.
The plane was identified as an American military aircraft only when it flew close to the provincial capital of Guangdong, according to the source who chose to remain anonymous.
“It’s possible to cause accidents or misjudgments amid the escalating tensions between the Chinese and US militaries,” the source said.
“Using civil aircraft as cover is a common operation for the Americans and their close ally Israel. But the South China Sea is one of the world’s busiest international airspaces, which may put civil aircraft at risk.”
Many navies and air forces conceal their military activities with such deceiving moves, which may cause safety problems to civilian airlines and vessels if ground-based military operators failed to make repeated verifications, according to Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung.
“War allows deceit. There have been some accidents that happened when ground-based missile defence troops failed to carefully verify intruding aircraft,” Lu said.
A recent example is the Ukrainian Boeing 737 passenger plane that was tragically shot down by Iranian forces soon after take-off from Tehran on January 7th this year, killing all 176 passengers and crew.
Iran said it was “human error” and the aircraft had been mistaken for a “hostile target”. Back on September 1st, 1983, a similar horrifying “accident” took place when a Soviet Su-15 interceptor shot down a Korean Air Lines Boeing 747 on its way from New York to Seoul.
The tragedy happened because the Soviet air force responded to the airliner as “an intruding US spy jet” which lead to all 269 passengers and crew on board being killed.
All military and civilian air traffic control departments around the world used the radar-based “identification of friend or foe” (IFF) signals to verify aircraft, according to Collin Koh, a research fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies.
Koh says that safety issues should not be a concern if military aircraft kept a safe distance from civilian flights.
“Because the E-8C itself is also a large plane, the aircrew will be concerned about safety, besides accomplishing their mission successfully,” Koh said.
The use of civil aviation airframes as military reconnaissance aircraft platforms not only saved costs but also facilitated spying missions, according to Song Zhongping, a Hong Kong-based military expert.
“Fortunately, almost all reconnaissance aircraft modified from big passenger [planes] do not carry weapons, but they will collect valuable military information that may cause a direct threat to the PLA,” Song said.
“The night operation conducted by US aircraft in the South China Sea aimed at spying on the PLA’s recent weapon and troop deployments, because military mobilisations are usually arranged for the night.”
The US Seventh Fleet naval base in Yokosuka denied the aircraft was from the US navy and declined to comment further.
12th August 19:30
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