Online flight tracking software has shown a notable uptick in U.S. military aerial activity in the strategic Bashi Channel, which runs from the southern end of Taiwan to the northern tip of the island of Luzon in the Philippines, in recent weeks. A steady stream of U.S. Air Force KC-135 tankers has been seen flying in and out of this general area, which serves the main boundary between the Philippine Sea and the South China Sea. Particularly noteworthy, clusters of P-8A Poseidon and P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, and EP-3E Aries II and RC-135V/W Rivet Joint intelligence-gathering planes having also been observed operating there on many occasions over the last month or so.
Just today, an RC-135W and a KC-135T were spotted flying in the area. Yesterday, an EP-3E and three separate P-8As flew in and around the channel. The day before that, a P-8A, a P-3C, an EP-3E, and an RC-135W had all been present at various times, with at least one KC-135R flying in support of the activity there.
“The US military conducts 3 to 5 sorties to the #SouthChinaSea every day,” the SCS Probing Initiative noted in a Tweet on July 7. China’s Peking University in Beijing hosts the SCS Probing Initiative, which is, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the most active entities tracking American military aviation activity, as well as that of U.S. military ships, in the South China Sea and elsewhere in the Pacific. The project does also tracks other countries’ military activities in the region, too.
Still, there does seem to have been a notable increase in U.S. military aerial activity in this one particular area since the end of June. One of the first major conflagrations came on June 24, when two P-8As, a P-3C, and an RC-135W were tracked in the Bashi Channel. Another major cluster aircraft, including 4 P-8As, an EP-3E, an RC-135W, and at least two KC-135s, also appeared in the area on July 3. In the intervening days, the SCS Probing Initiative watched smaller numbers of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance aircraft regularly move through the region, including one of the Air Force’s two RC-135U Combat Sent electronic intelligence aircraft.
It’s not clear what the exact reasons for this might be, but it is likely due to a confluence of factors.
Beginning in June, the People’s Liberation Army Navy has conducted a number of significant naval exercises in the region. The PLAN’s newest aircraft carrier, the Shandong, has taken part in at least some of those drills.
Then, at the beginning of July, the U.S. Navy sent two of its own Nimitz class aircraft carriers, the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan, into the South China Sea, the first dual-carrier exercise it had held there in some six years. Ticonderoga class cruisers and Arleigh Burke class destroyers escorted the flattops and American submarines would have been in the area keeping watch, as well. The two carriers’ air wings trained together, as well as with a U.S. Air Force B-52 that had flown all the way to the area from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. The bomber landed on Guam after the conclusion of its long-range training mission.
The U.S. military has a clear interest in simply monitoring the Chinese drills in the region, as well as looking to gather any kind of intelligence about the technical capabilities of People’s Liberation Army Navy aircraft and ships taking part and their tactics, techniques, and procedures. Similarly, observing how the Chinese military responds to American military maneuvers offers its own opportunities to gather additional intelligence.
The U.S. aircraft have been flying in the area in recent weeks are certainly equipped to collect a wide variety of information, from full-motion video via electro-optical and infrared cameras on the P-8As and P-3Cs to a host of signals and electronic intelligence via the sensors suites on the EP-3Es and RC-135s. The P-8As have significant SIGINT capabilities, as well. Depending on their configuration, P-8As and P-3Cs can carry powerful radar imaging systems, too.
China’s response to the relatively rare dual-carrier exercise, in particular, was no doubt especially significant and would have provided a unique intelligence-gathering environment. Ensuring that the two carriers were able to operate in the South China Sea unmolested could easily have also driven requirements for additional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. Wanting to make sure opposing submarines, especially, did not get too close to the carrier strike groups would have called for the dedicated anti-submarine warfare capabilities of the P-8As and the P-3Cs, as well.
Beyond these more immediate events in and around the South China Sea, there’s definitely no shortage of potential items of interest for the U.S. military to point those sensors at in this region. The Bashi Channel serves as an important passageway from the South China Sea in the broader Pacific to the East, including for Chinese submarines. Earlier this year, there were reports that the PLAN had deployed two new Type 094 Jin class ballistic missile submarines, which would have brought the total size of the fleet to six subs.
The Type 094s are all are based at the sprawling Yulin Naval Base on Hainan Island in the northern end of the South China Sea. In May, a specially-configured P-8A carrying the powerful and secretive AN/APS-154 Advanced Airborne Sensor radar pod was observed flying around Hainan Island, including in international waters near Yulin. Chinese submarines, especially those packing ballistic missiles, would traverse the greater Luzon Strait after leaving their base on Hainan Island to move into the far less congested Philippine Sea and out into the greater Pacific. As such, this area is a critical submarine-hunting ground and natural choke point.
The activities of China’s submarine fleets, which are growing in overall size and seeing the introduction of more modern designs, have been a major area of focus for the U.S. military and its allies in recent years. In June, the Japanese government took the unusual step of publicly disclosing that it had tracked a likely Chinese submarine sailing submerged in international waters between Amami-Oshima Island and Yokoate Island, which are situated to the north of Okinawa in the East China Sea.
All of this comes as U.S.-Chinese relations are at a particularly low point due to a host of issues, including the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Authorities in Beijing recently imposed a new heavy-handed security law on Hong Kong, which has prompted the U.S. government, among others, to reassess its relationship with that semi-autonomous region. China’s leaders have also taken an increasingly aggressive stance toward Taiwan in recent years, as officials in Taipei have sought to distance the island more from the mainland.
Though the United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, it nonetheless remains its principal ally and has responded to the pressure from Beijing by stepping its own Freedom of Navigation Patrols (FONOPS) in the Taiwan Strait, with aircraft and warships taking part in those operations. In early June, a Navy C-40A passenger transport took an unusual route over the island itself. Later in the month, the U.S. Army released rare video footage of Green Berets training with their Taiwanese counterparts.
There are no clear indications that the overall geopolitical situation in the region is set to take a more positive course in the near future, so it seems probable that we will see more U.S. military activity in this strategic area in the weeks and months to come.
Update: 4:45 PM EST—
is reporting that President Donald Trump’s Administration is expected to make a major policy announcement regarding tensions with China in the South China Sea next week.
“The U.S. has raised concerns over China’s decision to conduct military exercises in the contested waters around the Paracel Islands,” according to Bloomberg. “The Defense Department last week called the actions “unlawful,” and the U.S. plans to lay out its official position next week, said one of the people who spoke on condition of anonymity.”
Contact the author: Joe@thedrive.com