The recent buzzing of a U.S. Navy EP-3E electronic surveillance aircraft by J-11 Flankers in the South China Sea, highlights the fact that it is probably the world’s touchiest maritime hot spot. In that region, small atolls and even submerged reefs have been the subject of competing claims from the ChiComs, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, and the Philippines for decades. Over the past few years, the ChiComs have been building military bases in the disputed region via the construction of artificial islands.
Lately, fighters have been deployed to those disputed islands. Images shown on Fox Business Network last month showed that J-11s were apparently being deployed. The J-11 is a knockoff of the Sukhoi Su-27, which is comparable to the F-15 Eagle. The plane is an air superiority fighter, capable of carrying up to ten air-to-air missiles, and can be refueled in flight.
The ChiComs have over 200 J-11s on the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) inventory, but this understates their strength. The People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force has another 48 J-11s, and at least 20 J-15s, a knockoff of the Su-33, a version of the Su-27 designed for carrier operations. The PLAAF also has a small force of J-16s, a modification of the two-seat J-11BS. China also has purchased Su-27 and Su-30MK fighters from Russia.
J-11s have had at least one close encounter with American forces prior to this most recent incident. In the summer of 2014, a P-8 Poseidon on a routine mission in the South China Sea was intercepted by a J-11. The Flanker came about 20 feet from the P-8. The United States filed a protest over the close passes, but the ChiComs brushed off the criticism. The situation was very similar to those preceding the 2001 EP-3 incident. In that incident, a J-8 Finback flown by Wang Wei collided with an EP-3E Aries electronic surveillance aircraft similar to the one involved in the incident earlier this month. The J-8 crashed, killing Wang Wei, and the EP-3 made an emergency landing on Hainan Island, where the crew was held for ten days.
China’s play gives them a decided advantage over the Philippines in the region. Since the departure of American forces from Clark Air Base and Subic Bay in the early 1990s, the Philippine military’s combat potential has waned. In the 1980s and 1990s, their fighter force consisted of F-8 Crusaders, which were being phased out of American service during the Vietnam War. Replacement plans in the 1990s were placed on hold after the 1997 economic crisis in Asia.
The Philippine Navy has very few modern combatants, and the only ships capable of carrying anti-ship missiles are a pair of Hamilton-class cutters that spent over 40 years in Coast Guard service prior to being handed over, with a third reportedly on the way. The Philippine Navy is now in a desperate race to add more modern ships, seeking to purchase new-build frigates and corvettes. The Philippines are also looking to buy more modern fighters for their Air Force. A recent purchase of 12 FA-50 Fighting Eagles from South Korea will help, but even with the ability to use the AIM-120 AMRAAM, the FA-50 may not be able to stand up to the Su-27. It will likely take a return of American forces to the Philippines to put a halt to the aggressive push by the ChiComs to dominate the South China Sea.