Call Sign ‘Rogue’: Pentagon Says One Chinese Commander Responsible for Spate of Air Confrontations

A Chinese PLA wing commander has repeatedly harassed U.S. military aircraft in the South China Sea, most recently directing a Chinese jet fighter to do a Top Gun-like barrel roll that came dangerously close to an American patrol jet on a routine mission, the U.S. Defense Department confirmed on Friday, Aug. 22. An armed Chinese ...

Photo by THERON KIRKMAN
Photo by THERON KIRKMAN
Photo by THERON KIRKMAN

A Chinese PLA wing commander has repeatedly harassed U.S. military aircraft in the South China Sea, most recently directing a Chinese jet fighter to do a Top Gun-like barrel roll that came dangerously close to an American patrol jet on a routine mission, the U.S. Defense Department confirmed on Friday, Aug. 22.

An armed Chinese fighter jet conducted "a dangerous intercept" of a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon submarine-hunting plane on a mission Aug. 19 in international waters near Hainan Island in the South China Sea, according to the Pentagon.

In a series of risky maneuvers that mimicked the barrel rolls flown by the character Maverick, played by Tom Cruise, in the 1986 movie Top Gun, the Chinese fighter, known as a J-11, flew under the U.S. Navy jet, with one pass coming within 50 feet of the U.S. plane. On another pass a minute or so later, the Chinese pilot flew directly under and then alongside the P-8, "bringing their wingtips to within 20 feet, and then, before he stabilized his fighter, he conducted a roll over the P-8, passing within 45 feet," the Pentagon stated, calling it one of the "most unsafe intercepts" since the downing of a Navy EP-3 in 2001 on Hainan Island. That incident sparked a diplomatic crisis in which two dozen American military personnel were held by the Chinese for more than 10 days. Pentagon officials believe the Chinese air squadron responsible for the interception that led to that incident is the same unit responsible for the series of incidents this year.

A Chinese PLA wing commander has repeatedly harassed U.S. military aircraft in the South China Sea, most recently directing a Chinese jet fighter to do a Top Gun-like barrel roll that came dangerously close to an American patrol jet on a routine mission, the U.S. Defense Department confirmed on Friday, Aug. 22.

An armed Chinese fighter jet conducted "a dangerous intercept" of a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon submarine-hunting plane on a mission Aug. 19 in international waters near Hainan Island in the South China Sea, according to the Pentagon.

In a series of risky maneuvers that mimicked the barrel rolls flown by the character Maverick, played by Tom Cruise, in the 1986 movie Top Gun, the Chinese fighter, known as a J-11, flew under the U.S. Navy jet, with one pass coming within 50 feet of the U.S. plane. On another pass a minute or so later, the Chinese pilot flew directly under and then alongside the P-8, "bringing their wingtips to within 20 feet, and then, before he stabilized his fighter, he conducted a roll over the P-8, passing within 45 feet," the Pentagon stated, calling it one of the "most unsafe intercepts" since the downing of a Navy EP-3 in 2001 on Hainan Island. That incident sparked a diplomatic crisis in which two dozen American military personnel were held by the Chinese for more than 10 days. Pentagon officials believe the Chinese air squadron responsible for the interception that led to that incident is the same unit responsible for the series of incidents this year.

One Defense Department official likened the two jets to a "school bus and a Ferrari," with the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) J-11 being the fast sports car doing circles around the lumbering Navy jet. But U.S. military officials say many Chinese fighter pilots are not necessarily well trained, making the incident particularly dangerous. It was unclear whether the American plane was armed. Even if it was, it is not designed to have any "air-to-air" capability to shoot down another plane.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby called the move "pretty aggressive and very unprofessional."

"We’ve registered our concerns very strongly through official diplomatic channels with the Chinese," Kirby said during a press briefing Friday. "This kind of behavior not only is unprofessional — it’s unsafe — and it is certainly not in keeping with the kind of military-to-military relations that we’d like to have with China."

Pentagon officials said the Aug. 19 incident happened about 135 miles east of Hainan Island. That area is legally navigable under international law, Defense Department officials maintain. Coastal nations such as China have "due regard for the rights and duties of other states, including in the exercise of these freedoms," the Pentagon’s statement read.

Pentagon officials said the incident is just one of several this year in which the same squadron commander from the same PLA unit was apparently harassing U.S. military jets. American military pilots navigate other areas and are not bothered by any PLA planes. It’s only in this area, near Hainan Island, that incidents occur.

In instances in March, April, and May, the Chinese commander appeared to direct his pilots to intercept American military aircraft, something the Pentagon did not disclose until Friday.

"We are concerned that the intercepting crews from that unit are acting aggressively and demonstrating a lack of regard for the safety of our aircrews," a Pentagon official said.

Chinese officials were "démarched" in May over that incident, meaning U.S. diplomats submitted a formal complaint in person to Chinese officials. That all instances apparently involve one commander from one unit means American officials believe there is a bigger problem with one individual inside the PLA. That PLA officer may find himself in hot water with Chinese officials — or maybe he’ll be rewarded.

"He’ll either be fired, killed, or promoted," quipped one Pentagon official.

Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children. Twitter: @glubold

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