WASHINGTON — Chinese and Russian warplanes have been increasingly aggressive intercepting U.S. military aircraft and patrolling near America’s West Coast, prompting the Air Force’s top combat officer to label their provocations one of his top worries.
Air Force Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, who leads Air Combat Command, said in an interview with USA TODAY that meeting the challenge from the Russian and Chinese to flights in international airspace is essential but dangerous.
“Our concern is a resurgent Russia and a very, very aggressive China,” Carlisle said.
Both countries are intent on expanding their spheres of influence — Russia in eastern Europe and the Pacific with China focusing much of its effort over the disputed South China Sea.
“Their intent is to get us not to be there,” Carlisle said. “So that the influence in those international spaces is controlled only by them. My belief is that we cannot allow that to happen. We have to continue to operate legally in international airspace and international waterways. We have to continue to call them out when they are being aggressive and unsafe.”
The stakes are high. Aggressive intercepts of U.S. patrol planes run the risk of mid-air collisions that would escalate tensions among nuclear powers.
“Any accident that occurs while the U.S. military is playing cat and mouse with Russian or Chinese forces could escalate into a real fight,” said Loren Thompson, a defense industry consultant and military analyst at the Lexington Institute. “If it does, American victory is not assured, because U.S. forces are operating thousands of miles from home and the other side is near its main bases. Small confrontations can turn into big wars, and Russian military doctrine embraces the use of nuclear weapons to win local conflicts.”
An increasing number have occurred in recent months, Carlisle said, with fighters from Russia and China buzzing perilously close to American military aircraft.
The Pentagon has denounced the hazardous intercepts for more than a year, although condemnation hasn’t halted the practice. On May 17, two Chinese fighter jets flew dangerously close to a U.S. Navy patrol plane over the South China Sea. China has been on a campaign to assert its sovereignty over the busy waterways, building artificial islands on reefs in the sea and establishing military bases. In late April, a Russian fighter pilot performed a “barrel roll” over the top of an Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance plane, Carlisle said, above the Black Sea.
There has also been an uptick in long-range bomber activity from the Russians in Eastern Europe and extending to flights off the U.S. West Coast, Carlisle said.
“We have seen an increase,” Carlisle said. “All the way down to the California coast. The number and frequency has increased.”
For China, the goal appears to be establishing control of the international airspace over the South China Sea. There are conflicting territorial claims among countries in the region with China upping the ante by establishing a military bases on artificial islands around the Paracel and Spratley Islands chains.
Carlisle expects that the Chinese will institute an Air Defense Identification Zone over a large portion of the South China Sea. Zones like these extend beyond a country’s borders in its national security interests. Aircraft entering such a zone are required them to identify and locate themselves. The United States has established them after consulting with neighboring countries.
The Chinese unilaterally set up an identification zone in the East China Sea in 2013. Carlisle expects a similar action soon in the South China Sea.
“Their expansion into the Paracels and the Spratleys is so they can declare it and then have the capability to enforce it, where they can do intercepts,” Carlisle said. “They are doing it outside of what could be consider the norms.”
Maintaining communication with the Russian and Chinese military is key to avoiding mishaps, Carlisle said. Training pilots to deal with intercepts will continue.
“As they become more aggressive, you run the risk of miscalculation,” he said. “You don’t know where that’s going to lead, or end.”
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