US Spy Flights Sweep China’s Shores

A U.S. Air Force reconnaissance plane conducted a suspected intelligence-collection operation near China’s shores on Tuesday for the fifth time in seven days, defying recent Chinese warnings about the proximity of U.S. spy flights.

The pointed sorties off China’s eastern and southern coastline began on May 7 and were flown by an RC-135U Combat Sent electronic intelligence aircraft, capable of gathering and analyzing signals such as radar emissions and missile telemetry in order to craft effective countermeasures.

The same Combat Sent was sent up on May 9 and 10 and then on May 13 and 14 for operations that lasted up to eight hours, according to aircraft-tracking service Flightradar24, which logged its takeoff and landing times at Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, the Japanese island that hosts about two-thirds of the U.S. forces stationed in Japan.

The Air Force says the Combat Sent—powered by four jet engines and 130,000 pounds of fuel—can sustain aerial operations for 4,000 nautical miles at an altitude of above 35,000 feet. The aircraft, first flown during the Cold War, carries “a minimum of 10 electronic warfare officers” and at least six “mission area specialists,” in addition to other operators.

The reconnaissance flights last week, which were available to track because of the GPS data broadcast for aviation safety, showed the Boeing-made plane sweeping China’s southern shores in the South China Sea, and on other days flying north for sorties in the East China Sea, reaching the Yellow Sea.

The intelligence-gathering sorties appeared to overlap, at least in part, with the first sea trial of the Chinese navy’s latest aircraft carrier, the Fujian, in waters off Shanghai.

The Chinese Defense Ministry and the U.S. Defense Department did not immediately respond to separate queries seeking comment.

Shu Hsiao-huang, an associate research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, Taiwan’s top military think tank, said U.S. sorties along the Chinese coast had been “ongoing for several years,” conducted by RC-135, P-8 and EP-3 planes, along with RQ-4 drones.

“It is generally seen as counteracting China’s harassment of other countries in its surrounding waters, but in fact it should be considered a type of electronic surveillance,” Shu told Newsweek.

“Whenever China conducts particular exercises in the region, whether along its coast or naval drills further afield, U.S. Navy and Air Force electronic intelligence aircraft deploy nearby to carry out related missions,” he said.

In this image released to the public on October 17, 2023, by the U.S. Defense Department, a Chinese fighter jet intercepts a U.S. aircraft operating in international airspace over the South China Sea. A U.S….


Last week, Canberra said a Chinese fighter jet endangered the lives of an Australian helicopter crew by releasing flares in front of it during an air intercept in international airspace over the Yellow Sea. Beijing said the Australian navy helicopter was disrupting a naval exercise.

China has pushed back against what it calls “close-in reconnaissance” of Chinese territory by U.S. vessels and aircraft, which have flown over 1,000 sorties in the East and South China seas in each of the past four years, according to publicly available estimates.

At least twice this year at its monthly press briefings, the Chinese Defense Ministry has blamed the activities for tensions in the relationship between Beijing and Washington.

“The root cause of air and maritime military security issues between China and the United States is that the U.S. warships and aircraft have made provocations at China’s doorstep and conducted long-term, large-scale and frequent close-in reconnaissance in the waters and airspace around China,” Chinese defense spokesperson Col. Wu Qian said in January.

In April, following the first talks between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese opposite number Adm. Dong Jun, Wu said: “We hope the U.S. side will work with us in the same direction, value peace, stability and trust as the basic principles of exchanges, and, on the basis of equality and respect, build a military-to-military relationship featuring no conflict, no confrontation, open and pragmatic cooperation and gradual accumulation of mutual trust, so as to truly serve as a stabilizer of bilateral relations.”

The Pentagon, which does not typically comment on specific operations, says U.S. forces will operate “wherever international law allows.”