Chinese Y-8J maritime patrol aircraft. Japan ASDF photo 

It’s Boom Time for Naval Spy Planes

Mike Yeo and Robert Beckhusen take a look at how U.S. and Chinese surveillance flights are surging along the Pacific Rim

About 40 miles northwest of Manila, the capital of the Philippines, American spy planes are taking off for secretive missions in the South China Sea. There the planes loiter, watching for Chinese warships that, suspiciously, have been appearing in region more and more often lately.

The U.S. spy missions are so sensitive, the Pentagon won’t say whether or not the flights even exist.

Perhaps it’s not surprising. The South China Sea is home to hundreds of islands known as the Spratlys — and no one can agree who owns what. China claims most of them along with the islands’ bountiful natural resources. Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan claim other chunks. Any day now,

Beijing could plop down a base on an islet and spark an international incident, or beach an old ship loaded with troops on a reef and turn it into a D-I-Y outpost. (Yep, the Philippines actually did this.)

Farther north, China is sending its own spy planes closer to Japan than ever before, and Tokyo is scrambling its interceptors to catch up. It’s all getting quite tense. The reason? You guessed it: another group of disputed islands.

In any case, now’s a great time to be a spy plane in the western Pacific.

The July 24, 2013 flight of a Chinese Y-8J plane. Japan ASDF illustration

Beijing’s airborne spies

Most days, China’s air forces conduct surveillance flights near Japanese territory. But it’s not every day they come within spitting distance of the Japanese home islands themselves.

Recently, China did just that.

Sometime on July 24, Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force scrambled interceptors against a Chinese naval air force Y-8J maritime patrol plane equipped with a powerful Thales Skymaster pulse Doppler air-and-sea search radar in an enlarged, drooping nose radome.

Instead of being content skirting the hotly-disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, as is usually the case, the plane flew south-easterly through international airspace near Japan’s southern Okinawa prefecture. The plane then headed out into the Pacific before coming back the same way toward mainland China.

There’s a simmering dispute over ownership of the supposedly resource-rich Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. The tiff pits Japan (which currently administers the islands and calls them the Senkakus) against China (which claims the islands and calls them the Diaoyus).

All this might not sound too impressive — the Chinese Y-8 plane is roughly equivalent to the ubiquitous U.S. C-130 Hercules transport, after all. And Chinese navy ships are also semi-regular users of the international waters around the islands.

But the flight was something of a big deal in defense circles, given the more modest nature of China’s previous aerial activities around Japan. Something is changing. And in the tense western Pacific, change can sound all sorts of alarms.

Chinese surveillance flights have been increasing in recent years, although they don’t typically travel too close to Japan itself. They pass over a broad area of territory, what Japan terms its Air Defense Identification Zone, where they loiter around for a few hours — typically around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands — and then leave.

But the July flight was the first time Chinese military aircraft had flown that particular route so near to Japan. Beijing appears to be charting a new and more provocative aerial route into the disputed zone.

Granted, the flight pales in comparison with a recent incident with the Russians. Earlier in July, Japanese fighters were scrambled to intercept two Russian Tu-95 Bear H bombers and an Il-18 Coot surveillance plane that came close to Japanese airspace. It’s a bit worrying to have cruise missile-carrying intercontinental bombers circumnavigating international airspace around your territory.

But the Chinese spy sortie is an escalation.

U.S. Navy P-3C surveillance plane. Navy photo

Spies over the Spratlys

The reconnaissance flights are not all going one-way — the U.S. is boosting spy missions, too. This week Japanese news agency Kyodo News reported it had obtained a classified government document detailing flights by the Navy’s P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft over the South China Sea.

The mission, according to the agency, is to snoop on Chinese frigates and surveillance ships operating near the Second Thomas Shoal, a group of islets 147 miles west of the Philippines and home to a rusting, beached hospital ship garrisoned by a small detachment of malnourished Philippine troops. China claims the shoal as its own.

The authenticity of the documents could not be independently confirmed, and the agency did not state which government the document came from. “The Navy routinely operates in international airspace around the world, namely as part of our continued forward presence to support security and stability,” Senior Chief Michael Lewis, a Pacific Fleet spokesman, tells War is Boring. We’re obliged to note this isn’t a confirmation nor a flat denial of the spy flights.

The four-engine P-3Cs are reportedly based at Clark Air Base (a former U.S. airfield now owned by the Philippines), partly at the urging of a concerned Philippine president Benigno Aquino. Dozens of the Spratly Islands’ reefs, islands and atolls are occupied by the military forces of five nations with overlapping claims over the sea’s substantial mineral and natural gas reserves — there are more than 600 in total and they’re largely uninhabited. The recent Chinese naval deployments have set off “alarm bells in Manila,” Kyodo News reported.

According to one former U.S. airman who flew surveillance missions in the Pacific for the Air Force, these operations are not new. “This has definitely been going on in that area for as long as I remember. They literally just perform surveillance regularly. It’s just sort of what they do,” the aviator tells War is Boring. The airman did not want to be named nor disclose specific operations. “Now, if they were flying much more missions, then you could ask, is something heating up?”

That appears to be the case with the Chinese forces in the area. The Philippine military also appears to be flummoxed about what to do.

“We can only do (the) best (with) what we have,” the document stated, according to Kyodo News. “The military is aware of its limitations as regards equipment, naval and air assets, facilities and funding to support our efforts” in the South China Sea.

It’s no joke. Manila has one of the weakest navies in the Pacific, owing to years of neglect brought about in part by the Philippine military being bogged down in its fight against southern insurgent groups.

The 3,200-ton frigate Gregorio del Pilar, the Philippine flagship, is a rusty former U.S. Coast Guard cutter dating to 1967. The lightly armed vessel is a floating rubber ducky compared to China’s growing arsenal of modern warships.

The same is true for the Philippines’ air force, which is mainly built around light-attack helicopters and fixed-wing ground-attack planes — useful for hunting insurgents but essentially useless at sea. Manila also has a big shortage of aircraft designed for snooping on the open waters.

So the U.S. is picking up the slack. But good luck getting the Navy to admit that. Nobody wants to cop to steadily escalating the tensions in what amounts to the world’s biggest military powder keg.

This is Mike’s first article for War is Boring. Robert previously wrote about Mexico’s drug war going to Hell, and a Nerf cannon turned into a robotic sentry gun. Subscribe to War is Boring: