Chinese J-16 Seen ‘Head Butting’ U.S. RC-135 In Cockpit Video

The encounter between the Chinese J-16 Flanker and the U.S Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint occurred over the South China Sea.

byThomas Newdick|
U.S. Department of Defense screencap


A People’s Liberation Army J-16 Flanker multirole fighter performed an “unnecessarily aggressive” maneuver close to a U.S. Air Force RC-135 surveillance plane over the South China Sea recently, according to the Pentagon. The incident is the latest in a string of encounters between the Chinese military and that of the United States and its allies in these hotly contested waters, with recent previous examples including a simulated attack on a U.S. Navy task group and a close proximity intercept of another RC-135 by a Chinese J-11 Flanker fighter, both last December.

According to a statement from U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM), in the latest incident, which happened on May 26, 2023, the pilot of the PLA J-16 “flew directly in front of the nose of the RC-135, forcing the U.S. aircraft to fly through its wake turbulence.” This term describes the disturbed airflow that an aircraft trails behind it and which can cause a plane following it to enter a roll, with a potentially dangerous outcome, if the crew is not prepared.

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USINDOPACOM further says that the RC-135 was “conducting safe and routine operations over the South China Sea in international airspace, in accordance with international law.”

The RC-135 in question may have been the aircraft shown in the tweet below, serial number 64-14841, an RC-135V Rivet Joint that was active over the South China Sea on May 26, based on data provided by open-source flight tracking websites.

Video footage of the intercept has been released by USINDOPACOM, which you can see above. The turbulence is clearly experienced in the cockpit of the RC-135 after the surveillance aircraft passes through the J-16’s wake turbulence. As well as this, there is a suggestion at the end of the video that the J-16 may have launched infrared decoy flares, although this cannot be confirmed, and it may well simply be the effect of glare from the sun.

This type of maneuver, on the part of the Chinese fighter, is known as ‘thumping’ or a ‘head-butt’ and involves the aircraft putting itself in front of the nose of the aircraft to be intercepted, sometimes at very close range. In any case, the generation of wake turbulence has the potential to be dangerous in these kinds of conditions.

A PLA Air Force J-16 Flanker takes off. Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation

Exactly how dangerous this particular maneuver was is hard to say, although based on the available video, the J-16 didn’t pass as close to the RC-135 as in certain previous encounters, with both Chinese and Russian fighters. The crew of the RC-135 appear to have been fully aware of what was happening and maneuvers of this kind are a regular part of the intercepting fighter’s repertoire. There is also an established protocol for dealing with wake turbulence.

At it is, intercepts of this kind by Chinese fighters are not uncommon. In 2017, we reported on an unsafe intercept of a U.S. Air Force WC-135W Constant Phoenix atmospheric sampling jet by a pair of PLA Su-30MKK Flanker fighters above the East China Sea. Most notoriously, an unsafe intercept by a Chinese J-8 Finback fighter led to the infamous Hainan Island Incident in 2000, when a collision with a U.S. Navy EP-3 Aries spy aircraft resulted in an emergency landing at a Chinese airbase and a major diplomatic row.

More recently, however, there is evidence that Chinese pilots have upped the ante somewhat in these kinds of intercepts. In June last year, for instance, a Royal Australian Air Force P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft was reportedly damaged by countermeasures launched by a PLA J-16 over the South China Sea. Australia accused the crew of the Chinese jet of conducting a “dangerous maneuver.”

A J-16 releases infrared countermeasures. Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images

In December 2022, meanwhile, a PLA Navy J-11 performed what the United States declared an unsafe intercept on an RC-135 over the South China Sea. The Pentagon said the fighter flew within “20 feet” of the RC-135’s nose. In addition, an unnamed U.S. military spokesperson also suggested that the J-11 came within 10 feet of the RC-135’s wing, Reuters reports.

Part of the December 21, 2022, intercept of an RC-135 by a Chinese J-11:

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That incident came at the same time that the PLA Navy was simulating an attack on a U.S. Navy task group in the South China Sea, as part of a large-scale Chinese exercise, involving the aircraft carrier Shandong, as well as other undisclosed bomber and fighter aircraft. You can read more about those provocative war games here.

Overall, the May 26 encounter fits the pattern of intercepts by Chinese aircraft that have been going on for decades and are a regular part of operations over the South China Sea, in particular. The same can be said for other potential adversaries dating back to the early stages of the Cold War. Even in more recent times, some intercepts have been far more aggressive than this one, although it still provides a good example of the ‘thumping’ maneuver.

One of two Russian Su-27s intercepts a U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber and performs a ‘thumping’ maneuver, on August 28, 2020:

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The latest incident also has to be seen within the broader context of increased tensions in the Indo-Pacific in recent years. With Beijing claiming that the vast majority of the South China Sea belongs to China, there has been growing friction between Beijing, its neighbors, the United States, and its allies. China’s position has been made more clear by its increased militarization of the region, most prominently via the construction of man-made island fortresses in these waters.

There is also the Taiwan factor, with Beijing having taken an increasingly aggressive stance toward the island in recent years, while U.S. officials have been more regularly openly expressing concerns that China may seek to take control of the island sooner rather than later.

As It has done on similar occasions in the past, USINDOPACOM called for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” in response to the intercept:

“The United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate — safely and responsibly — wherever international law allows, and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Joint Force will continue to fly in international airspace with due regard for the safety of all vessels and aircraft under international law. We expect all countries in the Indo-Pacific region to use international airspace safely and in accordance with international law."

This is a developing story, and we will update this post when further information becomes available.

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