Here’s What You Need to Remember: A Chinese-government-backed newspaper is reporting that several U.S. spy planes have been seen in the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea, at times traveling near sensitive border areas.
The Chinese Global Times says U.S. Navy P-8A and U.S. Army RC-12X signals intelligence aircraft began new surveillance missions immediately following the news that the United States asked China to close its consulate in Houston.
The report called it “a move likely aimed at gathering intelligence on possible submarine and aircraft carrier movements by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.”
Yet U.S. surveillance plane missions in the area are by no means unprecedented or even unusual in any way. For example, widely-circulated video footage of China’s phony island-building in the South China Sea was obtained by a U.S. Poseidon P-8A aircraft several years ago. As recently as last year, the U.S. Navy awarded Boeing a $2.4 billion deal to build nineteen more aircraft.
The Poseidon, alongside intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) enabled nuclear-powered attack submarines, seems well-positioned to help hunt down Chinese nuclear ballistic missile submarines. Not only is the P-8’s 564 mph speed considerably faster than the P-3 Orion it is replacing, but its six additional fuel tanks enable it to search wide swaths of ocean and spend more dwell-time patrolling high-threat areas. Navy developers explain the Poseidon can operate on ten-hour missions at ranges out to 1,200 nautical miles. More dwell time capacity, fortified by high-speeds, better enables the Poseidon to cover wide areas in search of hidden Chinese nuclear missile submarines.
The P-8A, a militarized variant of Boeing’s 737-800, includes torpedo and Harpoon weapons stations, 129 sonobuoys and an in-flight refueling station, providing longer ranges, sub-hunting depth penetration and various attack options. Given that a P-8 can conduct sonobuoy sub-hunting missions from higher altitudes than surface ships, helicopters or other lower-flying aircraft, it can operate with decreased risk from enemy surface fire and swarming small boat attacks. Unlike many drones and other ISR assets, a Poseidon can not only find and track enemy submarines but attack and destroy them as well.
Alongside its AN/APY-10 surveillance radar and MX-series electro-optical/infrared cameras optimized to scan the ocean surface, the Poseidon’s air-parachuted sonobuoys can find submarines at various depths beneath the surface. The surveillance aircraft can also operate as a “node” within a broader sub-hunting network consisting of surface ships, unmanned surface vessels, aerial drone-mounted maritime sensors and submarines. As part of its contribution to interconnected sub-hunting missions, the Poseidon can draw upon an Active Electronically Scanned Array, Synthetic Aperture Radar and Ground Moving Target Indicator.
Both the U.S. and China have been substantially stepping up activity in the region, including surveillance, training, combat preparation ops and allied interoperability operations. The U.S. Navy has, on several occasions, conducted “dual-carrier” warfare preparations in a clear demonstration of the kind of size, reach and coordination a U.S. carrier attack might encompass.
China is also progressing quickly with its indigenous carrier construction and also sending multiple carriers on missions in the area.
While drills, training and combat preparations with allies in the Pacific theater are pretty routine, they are taking on additional significance at the moment, given the escalating situation between the United States and China. The Chinese paper accuses the U.S. military of “preparing” and goes on to cite Chinese activities in response.
“Neither China nor the U.S. wants to engage each other in a military conflict, as that would be a disaster for both countries and the world,” analysts said. They also noted that while America’s close-up reconnaissance activities show the U.S. military is preparing and aiming to gain certain advantages, the PLA is also making preparations, as its capability and determination will serve as a powerful deterrent.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. This article was first published in 2020.