A top US Navy (USN) leader has expressed concern about unsafe intercepts of military aircraft operating in the Asia-Pacific region.
“There has been an increase in what we could consider unsafe, unprofessional, or non-standard intercepts [of aircraft],” says Admiral Karl Thomas, commander of the USN’s Seventh Fleet.
While Thomas stresses that unsafe intercepts are not a regular occurrence, and that things are generally “professional,” sometimes things “get out of bounds.”
On 26 May, a People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Shenyang J-16 conducted a dangerous intercept of a Boeing P-8A Poseidon operated by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in international airspace over the South China Sea.
During the intercept, the J-16 shot off a cloud of chaff, some of which was ingested into the P-8A’s CFM International CFM56 engines, forcing it to return to base.
Flight tracking data suggested the incident occurred far to the south of China and just west of the Philippines. The Chinese fighter likely came from one of the air bases China has built – in contravention of international law - on atolls in the South China Sea.
Generally, US probing of these bases invites a more aggressive response from Chinese units, says Thomas. He observes that the atolls have become fully functioning military outposts with missiles, runways, hangars, and listening posts.
When Beijing originally started reclaiming land on the atolls, it made assurances that they would not be militarised.
Thomas, who formerly flew Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeyes, adds that intercepting contacts is a routine function.
“We will go investigate what a contact may be, and we’ll fly up and take pictures of it, or we’ll watch it, but it’s how you do it: it’s the rate of closure, it’s the separation and distance, it’s what you do with the systems that you have on board.”
Thomas receives a report every time one of the aircraft under his command is intercepted, with details such distance, altitude separation, and horizontal separation.
“It’s not as if every day something’s going awry,” he adds. “It’s an infrequent action. And then you ask yourself: is it because of an unprofessional pilot? Or is it something broader than that? It’s fair to say is that it’s enough that it is concerning to us.”
Thomas made the remarks to reporters in Singapore on the eve of the international SEACAT (Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training) naval exercise.
US Navy Captain Tom Ogden, Commodore of Destroyer Squadron 7, says the P-8 will be a key element in SEACAT.
“With the time on station and broad area surveillance that the P-8 allows, we’re able to see, identify, and share the information that it captures with any of the partners involved,” says Ogden. “It’s a platform that allows us to do a lot of things.”
On broader Seventh Fleet aviation priorities, Thomas also gives the P-8 high marks, not least because it is also operated by key allies, which enables interoperability with US forces.
“It’s that network syncing capability as we work with other countries in this part of the world, to be able to really drive interoperability,” he says. “When you operate the same platform, you have the same tactics, techniques and procedures, it allows you to increase that interoperability.”
He also singled out the Lockheed Martin F-35, which is operated by both USN and US Marine Corps in the region. He feels that the fighter is an “incredible sensing platform” and that USN is still learning about how it can contribute to maritime domain awareness.