Russian and Chinese Jets Engaging in Unsafe Intercepts of US Aircraft, Reflecting Increased Tensions

  • US military reports unsafe intercepts of its planes by Russian and Chinese jets, reflecting desire by these countries to challenge the US and assess its capabilities.
  • Dangerous incidents cited include Russian jets interfering with a US drone over the Black Sea and Chinese jets conducting “coercive and risky” intercepts of US aircraft.
  • General Mark Kelly notes a new development in the nature and frequency of these interactions, attributing it to the desire of these countries to practice against the best and compete in this arena.

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The US military has reported numerous unsafe intercepts of its planes by Russian and Chinese jets, reflecting a desire by these countries to challenge the US and assess its capabilities, according to US commanders. These incidents have become more frequent as tensions with Russia and China have risen. The encounters have included instances where Russian and Chinese jets crowded, buzzed, and even collided with US aircraft in various global hotspots.

US officials have cited several dangerous incidents this year, including Russian jets interfering with a US MQ-9 drone over the Black Sea in March and Russian jets exhibiting unsafe behavior around US drones and manned aircraft over Syria in July. In mid-October, the Pentagon released photos and videos of what it described as “coercive and risky” intercepts of US aircraft by Chinese jets over the past two years.

General Mark Kelly, who oversees the organizing, training, and equipping of US Air Force units, noted that the nature and frequency of these interactions is a new development. He stated that five years ago, they were not seeing routine interactions between US and Chinese fighters, or Russian and US fighters merging on a weekly, if not daily, basis over Syria. Kelly attributed this change to the desire of these countries to have practice against the best in the world, a challenge to the post-World War II rules-based construct, and their confidence in competing in this arena.

These close encounters occur against the backdrop of Russia’s ongoing attack on Ukraine, which has led to a reordering of Europe’s security architecture. Additionally, the US and China are engaged in increasing geopolitical competition centered around the Western Pacific, where China’s growing military capabilities are of concern.

While the US still has an advantage in aircraft technology and pilot experience, Air Force officials argue that this lead is shrinking due to the aging fleet. The aircraft and weapons that have allowed the Air Force to achieve air superiority in recent conflicts, such as the F-22 stealth fighter and AIM-120 air-to-air missile, are also aging. Russia and China have noticed these vulnerabilities and are seeking to capitalize on them.

Russia and China have heavily invested in their own air forces in recent decades. Russia’s air force has been largely unaffected by the war in Ukraine, although its performance there has raised doubts about its capabilities. China’s air force and navy now possess the world’s third-largest aviation fleet, including 1,900 fighter jets. Both countries want to test their aircraft and pilots against the US to see how they fare against American capabilities.

While Russia has exhibited some favorable shifts in behavior over the last month, Chinese behavior remains unchanged. The risks of these encounters are intensified by China’s refusal to engage in military-to-military discussions. The absence of communication channels increases the likelihood of accidents escalating. However, recent attendance of US defense officials at a security conference in Beijing and high-level meetings suggest that communication channels may be reopening.

US officials acknowledge that intercepts happen daily around the world, with the majority conducted safely. However, due to the refusal of China to engage in military-to-military discussions and its objection to US military operations in the Western Pacific, tense encounters are likely to continue.

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