Chinese Fighter’s Decoy Dump In Front Of A P-8 Sets Dangerous New Precedent (Updated)

An Australian P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft was damaged by countermeasures launched by a Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) J-16 Flanker fighter jet over the hotly contested South China Sea, according to the Australian Department of Defense. The department accused the crew of the two-seater J-16 of conducting a “dangerous maneuver” in what is the latest maritime incident involving forces from Australia and China.

According to the Australian Department of Defense, the P-8A, one of 12 currently in Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) service, was operating over international waters in the South China Sea on May 26 when the incident occurred and was conducting what the department described as routine surveillance.

RAAF P-8A Poseidon
A Royal Australian Air Force P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. Australian Department of Defense

With the J-16 reportedly alongside the Poseidon, the Chinese jet released infrared decoy flares. The fighter is then said to have cut across and in front of the patrol plane before releasing chaff, which is normally used to blind and confuse radars on enemy aircraft and ground and sea-based air defenses, as well as radar-guided missiles. Chaff comes in multiple forms, from foil-like strips to metal-coated filament-like pieces that get dispersed from the dropping aircraft. They create a false picture of multiple targets on radar screens or otherwise swamp the screen with many returns. The same can be said for confusing radar-guided missile seekers.

Chaff can stay aloft for long periods and can be blown with the prevailing winds. Dropped from a “very close distance” and at a high concentration from the J-16, some of these aluminum strips were ingested into one of the P-8’s engines, according to Australian Minister of Defense Richard Marles. Foreign object debris (FOD), such as chaff, can harm or even destroy an engine, which is especially concerning when in flight near a hostile actor.

Robert S Hopkins III, a contributor to The War Zone and veteran U.S. Air Force strategic reconnaissance pilot, noted that the release of countermeasures marks a significant escalation in intercept tactics by the Chinese side, describing it as “a new low” in this field, and one which could have potentially catastrophic effects. Interceptors changing speed, or dumping fuel, have both occurred in the past, including in Cold War intercepts, but Hopkins says he’s unaware of chaff or flares ever being used in this way.

Hopkins told us that flares and chaff can be dangerous for engine ingestion, noting that a post-flight inspection might involve an engine tear-down, grounding the jet, and incurring additional expenses. Referring to his experiences of being intercepted, he added: “One ‘rule’ of the ‘game’ was ‘look but don’t touch.’ Intentional physical contact (direct or indirect) was off-limits.”

An account from Canada’s Global News, meanwhile, asserts that flares, not chaff, released by the J-16 were responsible for actually damaging the P-8, although this is yet to be officially verified.

“The intercept resulted in a dangerous maneuver which posed a safety threat to the P-8 aircraft and its crew,” the Australian Department of Defense said in a statement.

Australia Prime Minister Anthony Albanese also said the interception was “not safe” and confirmed a formal complaint had been made to the government in Beijing.

It’s not clear what, if any, damage was sustained by the P-8, or even if its mission was cut short as a result. The Poseidon appears to be one of two that are currently deployed to Clark Air Base in the Philippines. According to publicly available flight-tracking data collated by defense reporter Mike Yeo, the P-8 involved in the encounter did not fly again until June 3, although there is no evidence that this pause was related to any damage it may have received.

The Australian Department of Defense stressed that it had “for decades undertaken maritime surveillance activities in the region” and “does so in accordance with international law, exercising the right to freedom of navigation and overflight in international waters and airspace.”

Flight-tracking data showing the flight path of the RAAF P-8 on May 26.

Beijing is yet to comment on the incident but does make sweeping claims of sovereignty over much of the South China Sea, and its resources, and in recent years has been significantly expanding its military footprint in the region. These waters have seen China create artificial islands with military infrastructure as well as the use of paramilitary vessels to impede other nations’ access to fishing areas and energy resources.

“Obviously, we do not want to see an increase in militarization in the South China Sea,” Australian Minister of Defense Richard Marles told reporters. “This is a body of water, which is deeply connected to Australia because of our trade, which goes through there.”

Had the incident resulted in serious damage to the P-8, it might even have ended up with the patrol aircraft falling into Chinese hands. This would have been an enormous intelligence coup, comparable to the incident in which a U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries II intelligence-gathering aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter and made an emergency landing on Hainan Island in 2001.

Notably, this is not the first recent maritime encounter between Australia and China, nor is it the first to involve a P-8 maritime patrol aircraft.

In February this year, Australia accused a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warship of illuminating a RAAF P-8 with a laser during an encounter in the Arafura Sea, between Australia and Western New Guinea. China in turn called out the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) for harassing one of its vessels, including allegedly dropping sonobuoys in its vicinity.

An image provided by the Chinese Ministry of Defense showing what it described as a sonobuoy dropped by an RAAF P-8 close to a PLAN vessel in February. Chinese Ministry of Defense

More recently, Australian officials reacted after a PLAN intelligence-gathering vessel appeared in international waters off the coast of Australia in May. The route of the vessel brought it close to a joint Australian and U.S. naval communication station, while it was monitored by an RAAF P-8 and a contractor-operated Dash 8 maritime patrol aircraft. The then Australian Minister of Defense Peter Dutton described the actions of the PLAN vessel as an “aggressive act.” You can read all about that incident here.

The Australian account of events leading up to and after the incident with the PLAN spy ship off the Australian coast in May. Australian Department of Defense

Canada, too, has recently accused Beijing of unsafe intercepts of its maritime patrol aircraft by Chinese fighters. Ottawa has said that, on multiple occasions, its CP-140 Aurora maritime patrol aircraft have been “buzzed” by PLA jets while flying from Kadena Air Base in Japan between April 26 and May 26. Canada claims that its aircrews have had to take evasive action to avoid collisions while operating in international airspace near North Korea, where they are monitoring United Nations sanctions compliance. Chinese media have refuted those claims.

Overall, though, these encounters — and the use of chaff and flares — do suggest that Chinese aircraft are taking a more aggressive approach in general. Other such incidents have involved interceptions of U.S. military aircraft, which officials have also deemed to be unsafe. In one dramatic 2017 incident, a Chinese Su-30 fighter reportedly flew inverted over a U.S. Air Force WC-135W Constant Phoenix atmospheric-sampling jet above the East China Sea.

The latest P-8 incident, in the South China Sea, has added significance since it comes just five days after the Australian election, the run-up to which saw much discussion about the potential threat posed by China and how best to handle the current tensions. That election saw Albanese of the Labor Party elected as prime minister, as the Liberal Party government of former prime minister Scott Morrison was voted out.

Despite the changes in the political landscape, so far, the Albanese government looks set to continue the tough line on China that had been a trademark of the Morrison administration. However, there does seem to be some change in the kind of language being used by officials in Canberra. While Dutton spoke of the need to “prepare for war” in the election run-up, Albanese has stressed the “strategic competition” with China in the Asia Pacific region.

The then Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison (left) and Leader of the Opposition Anthony Albanese at the Australian War Memorial to mark the opening of the 2020 Parliament in Canberra. Albanese became the 31st prime minister of Australia on May 31. Australian Department of Defense

As for PLA activity in the South China Sea, the May 26 incident is by no means the first encounter involving the Chinese military and the armed forces of other nations. However, it’s notable that the Australian government has, in this instance, decided to draw attention to it as it continues to adapt its approach to handling Beijing’s wider strategic and military ambitions.

Therefore, while the P-8 incident over the South China Sea appears to continue what looks like a period of tensions between Australia and China, that may not be the whole story and it’s more than possible that similar encounters in the past have not been publicized in the same way.

That being said, there’s no doubt that the issue of the military and strategic challenges posed by China are of major concern in Australia right now. With the Australian military set to work more closely with the United States and the United Kingdom under the AUKUS agreement, and to introduce nuclear-powered submarines as part of a more robust maritime posture, the chances of such encounters with China, whether at sea or in the air, are only likely to increase in the future.

Update, June 7: China’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) has responded to the Australian allegations of a dangerous intercept of one of its P-8s last month. A spokesperson for the MND, Senior Colonel Tan Kefei, provided the following statement, outlining Beijing’s take on what happened, including admitting to and attempting to legitimize the deployment of countermeasures in the P-8’s path:

“On May 26, an Australian P-8A anti-submarine patrol aircraft entered the airspace near China’s Xisha Islands [also known as the Paracel Islands, effectively controlled by China, but also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan] for close-in reconnaissance and continuously approached China’s territorial airspace over the Xisha Islands in disregard of repeated warnings from the Chinese side. The Chinese PLA Southern Theater Command dispatched naval and air forces to identify and verify the Australian warplane and warn it off. The Australian warplane has seriously threatened China’s sovereignty and security and the countermeasures taken by the Chinese military are professional, safe, reasonable, and legitimate. It is the Australian side that confuses black and white, repeatedly disseminates false information, and instigates the hostility and confrontation. China firmly opposes all such deeds. We urge the Australian side to immediately stop such dangerous and provocative acts and strictly restrict the operations of its naval and air forces, or it will bear all the serious consequences arising therefrom.”

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