Near miss in the South China Sea

Earlier this month, a US Navy P-3C Orion and a Chinese Air Force KJ-200 Balance Beam came so close over the South China Sea that the P-3 had to take evasive action. The presence of the KJ-200 demonstrates increased maritime activity by China in the disputed islands, and it increases the likelihood that future maritime patrols of the area by western aircraft, including those from Australia, will likely be more vigorously challenged.

According to US Pacific Command (PACOM) the US Navy P-3C Orion and the PLA Air Force KJ-200 came within 1,000 feet of each other while in the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal. PACOM described the behaviour of the KJ-200 as “unsafe”, stating that the P-3C was forced to undertake a sudden manoeuvre to avoid colliding with the KJ-200. The action was described as inadvertent, rather than a deliberate attempt to intimidate the crew of the Orion.

The presence of PLA aircraft in the South China Sea is not unusual; in late 2016 Chinese media carried photos of one of the PLA’s H-6K bombers conducting a flight along the boundary-line of the portion of the South China Sea claimed by China. It’s also not unusual for US aircraft flying near China to be approached by PLA aircraft, but the US has said such interactions are usually ‘“professional and safe.”

This is not always the case, and in 2016 two such encounters were described by the US military as “dangerous.” In May a pair of PLA fighters intercepted an EP-3 over the South China Sea and in June a fighter intercepted an RC-135 over the East China Sea.

Probably, the most well publicised intercept occurred in April 2001 when an EP-3 and a PLA J-8 collided over the South China Sea. The pilot of the J-8 was killed and the EP-3 made an emergency landing on Hainan Island.

The crew of the US aircraft were detained for ten days until Washington issued an ambiguously worded statement.

The most recent interaction is the first reported instance of a US surveillance aircraft being approached by a PLA aircraft other than a fighter jet; the KJ-200 Balance Beam is an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft designed to use its own long-range radar to coordinate operations by other aircraft. Over the past few decades the PLA has experimented with several AWACS platforms.

The destruction of Iraq’s air defence system in 1991 demonstrated to Beijing that land-based radars would be amongst the first targets destroyed in any future conflict. In addition, static radars have poor low-altitude coverage and can be avoided by attacking aircraft.

The KJ-200 is one of the AWACS programs that produced an aircraft which has entered PLA service. In June 2006 the program experienced a significant setback when a Balance Beam crashed and was destroyed. On board were 40 people, almost certainly a combination of PLA aircrew and project engineers.

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