During what should have been an average flight, an American airman came face to face with two Chinese fighter jets. These fighter jets intercepted the plane and started an international incident.
The American plane was flying over the China Sea in international waters. This was well within their legal rights and also a routine measure to gather information about the area. The scariest part about this show of force from the Chinese was this was no ordinary American plane patrolling. This was a WC-135 Constant Phoenix. The plane is outfitted with special devices to detect nuclear materials in the air. It is commonly referred to a “sniffer” because it detects signs of nuclear activity in the atmosphere by “sniffing.”
The use of the sniffer planes to gather radiation samples is nothing new. The very first version of the Constant Phoenix dates back to 1947. According to a recent report:
“The Constant Phoenix was commissioned by Army Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in September 1947, as he gave the Army Air Forces — a precursor of the Air Force — responsibility for detecting atomic explosions worldwide. The mission was initially assigned to the WB-29 aircraft, but was swapped over to WB-50 and eventually the WC-135 by 1965.
Air sample missions have been carried out routinely since, with the WC-135 playing a key role in tracking radioactive debris after the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Soviet Union in 1986, according to an Air Force fact sheet. The WC-135 is currently the only aircraft in the service carrying out air-sampling missions, with crews from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska typically manning them. Equipment on board is operated by members of the Air Force Technical Applications Center.”
Since the use of the WC-135 was not something unexpected, it is interesting that the Chinese fighters made an appearance over international waters. It is also interesting that the interaction between the fighters and the solo American flier seemed to be a flexing of muscles of sorts as the pair reportedly flew upside down during the incident.
There are two theories behind what happened, which military called “unprofessional” but it has not been labeled aggressive as of yet. The first explanation is that they were attempting to stop the collection of air samples for some reason on this particular day. This could mean they were covering up for something they feared would be detected.
The WC-135 is made specifically for this type of collection so it would be logical they would try to stop the mission if there was something to cover-up. According to the specs for the WC-135, it has been altered for this type of mission in the following way:
“The Constant Phoenix’s modifications are primarily related to the aircraft’s on-board atmospheric collection suite, which allows the mission crew to detect radioactive debris “clouds” in real time. The aircraft is equipped with external flow-through devices to collect particulates on filter paper and a compressor system for whole air samples collected in high-pressure holding spheres. Despite the different designations, both the C and W carry the same mission equipment (similar to the RC-135V and W aircraft).
The interior seats 33 people, including the cockpit crew, maintenance personnel, and special equipment operators from the Air Force Technical Applications Center. On operational sorties, the crew is minimized to just pilots, navigator, and special-equipment operators, to reduce radiation exposure to mission-essential personnel only.”
A second explanation for the different flight and interaction is tied to the on-going tensions between the United States and China. It could be a mere flexing of power as this is not the first interaction of this type this year. According to a recent report:
“The incident was the second stand-off between US and Chinese military in seas surrounding China this year.
In February, a US Navy spy plane and a Chinese military aircraft came within 1,000 feet of each other over the South China Sea. At the time, US officials US officials called an “unsafe” close encounter over the South China Sea in February.”
The working relationship between the United States and China has been strained after an accident occurred in 2001. During that exchange, a Chinese jet pilot was killed after his plane collided with a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft off Hainan Island. This unfortunate event forced the United States military to end their working relationship with China.
The idea that the interception of the MC-135 might just be a power play is also tied to the long-standing dispute between China and Japan over territory in the East and the South China Sea. Both countries have attempted to invoke a claim of the 200 miles from their coast as an Exclusive Economic Zone (a sea zone prescribed by the United Nations). The problem is that the East China Sea is just 360 miles long. There is not enough space available for them both to claim the exclusive rights.
Since this event is still under investigation, it is not clear the exact reason behind the interception of the WC-135 made by two Chinese fighter pilots. It is also not clear at this time how the event will be addressed by either the United States or the Chinese government.