Asia & Pacific

US Flew 65 Spy Plane Sorties Over South China Sea in April, Up 40% in 2021, Report Says

The Biden administration has postured against China’s alleged aggression, but as Beijing representatives have pointed out, it’s the US that is increasing military activity off China’s shores and drilling for assault operations, not the other way around.

The US flew 65 spy plane missions across the South China Sea in April, according to data compiled by the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI) think tank published on Friday.

“Though static with those in the first quarter of 2021, the intensity of aerial reconnaissance activities has increased by more than 40% compared with the same period in 2020, since Biden took office,” SCSPI wrote, citing Thursday comments by the Chinese Ministry of National Defense about increased US activities in the area.

​According to the report, the US flew five types of reconnaissance aircraft across the area, reflecting a wide interest in everything from maritime patrol to signals intelligence and battlefield construction.

P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft flew the vast majority, with 43 missions in April, while another similar aircraft, the E-8C Orion, also flew five missions. Both aircraft can track surface ships as well as search for submarines using magnetic anomaly detectors. There were also 10 missions flown by EP-3E Aries II signals intelligence aircraft and six missions by RC-135W Rivet Joints, another SIGINT aircraft. 

SCSPI also tracked five missions flown by the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS), a powerful intelligence-gathering aircraft that carries a ground moving target indicator able to track dozens of ground units as well as a synthetic aperture radar capable of taking highly detailed images of the ground for hundreds of kilometers in every direction. A single MQ-4C Triton unmanned aerial vehicle also flew across the South China Sea in April.

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