Washington Has a Script for When Someone Tries to Shoot Down Its Spy Planes
Blueprint might prove useful if China keeps up interceptions
In August, a Chinese fighter jet flew a barrel roll over a U.S. Navy P-8 patrol plane over the South China Sea. This sort of aerial harassment has happened often enough that the U.S. government has a script for how to respond.
Last week, the Department of State released a new volume in its Foreign Relations of the United States series. One memo in the volume addresses a Libyan attack on an American C-130 transport plane in March 1973.
According to the April ’73 memo, Secretary of Defense William Clements provided Henry Kissinger—the president’s assistant for national security affairs—with four options.
The Libyan air force had tried to shoot down the C-130, which the Air Force had modified the four-engine transport plane to scoop up radio chatter for the National Security Agency.
The confrontation occurred in international air space. Tripoli had declared the sector off limits, but “the restricted area … is not recognized by the U.S. government,” Clements noted.
The Pentagon’s four possible responses range from purely diplomatic to escalating shows of force. The first suggestion was that Washington could stick with a simple formal protest. Unfortunately that might be “viewed as a weak and ineffective” by America’s friends and enemies, Clements warned.
On the other hand, “high-performance combat aircraft” flying through the area or escorting another C-130 across the might would assert America’s right to operate in international territory, the memo recommended.
However, Clements cautioned the increased military activity could provoke a wider incident. The fourth suggestion—possibly some sort punitive strike—is still classified.
Forty years later, the Pentagon’s crisis playbook appears to still include these options. “We have registered our strong concerns to the Chinese about the unsafe and unprofessional intercept,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby announced after the incident in August.
And the circumstances leading up to the recent near-collision in the Pacific are eerily similar to the North African case. Beijing claims most of the South China Sea as its own national territory.
The People’s Liberation Army could set up so-called Air Defense Identification Zones across the region in the near future. Last year, Chinese authorities demanded foreign air arms and civilian airlines notify them of any movements through an expanded ADIZ in the East China Sea.
Before enlarging that ADIZ, the PLA had already flown out to meet RC-135V/W spy planes in the same area. Chinese aircraft intercepted the intelligence missions at least three times in April 2009, according to footnotes in an official history that War Is Boring obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.
The Air Force directly challenged Beijing’s northern no-go zone just days after its establishment last November. Two unarmed B-52s flew over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands without Chinese interference.
The heavy bombers flew without escorts—the third option Clements proposed after the Libyan flap—but the Air Force could have provided one. A separate episode in 2013 revealed that American stealth fighters have escorted drones spying near Iran.
But Washington and Beijing do appear to be working hard to prevent aerial close-calls from escalating into actual violence. Chinese officials and state-run media decried America’s activities in the Pacific. But “Beijing did not endorse [the] dangerous behavior in the PLA response,” explains Alan Romberg, a fellow at the nonprofit Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.
And just like in the Libyan instance, Washington is definitely unlikely to follow-up with an actual attack. “It is our objective to maintain … our very substantial (in excess of $1 billion) investments in Libya,” Clements told Kissinger in his notice.
The United States and China could lose exponentially more from a shoot-out. An official fact sheet pegs the value of trade between the two countries at more than $500 billion.
Chinese authorities seem to want “to manage relations in a reasonable and constructive fashion and not allow them to deteriorate into confrontation,” Romberg adds.
Beijing has probably learned a lot since forcing one of the Navy’s EP-3E intelligence aircraft to land on Hainan Island more than a decade ago. “The fallout in terms of relations with the United States was extremely negative and lasted for a considerable period of time,” Romberg points out.
Still, Romberg says he expects Chinese interceptions to continue. “We’ll have to see what happens as we go forward.”