Author : Ajay Kumar Das,



It is well observed in recent times that People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has resorted to aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea (SCS) region with its navy and coast guard regularly challenging the ASEAN countries navies, coast guard or fishing vessels. Now in the recent days, one can also observe an increase in the aggressive manoeuvers being undertaken by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in the air over the SCS. It’s been observed from a long time that PLAN would challenge the passage of US and its ally’s warships or other vessels from the SCS. Now, the PLAAF is replicating the same behaviour in the SCS airspace. This gives rise to the concern that now even the airspace in SCS will become a no-fly zone as per Chinese terms. This will in turn lead to more confrontation and can risk potential escalation in tensions over SCS.  


Image: Screengrab from B-52 Source: USINDOPACOM




The Encounter over the SCS


On 26 Oct 2023 the US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) reported that on 24 Oct 2023, a PRC J-11 pilot executed an unsafe intercept of a United States Air Force (USAF) B-52 aircraft, which was lawfully conducting routine operations over the SCS in international airspace. During the night time intercept, the PRC pilot flew in an unsafe and unprofessional manner, demonstrated poor airmanship by closing with uncontrolled excessive speed, flying below, in front of, and within 10 feet of the B-52, putting both aircraft in danger of collision. The PRC intercept was conducted at night, with limited visibility, in a manner contrary to international air safety rules and norms.[1] This incident raises the question that whether such intercepts by the PLAAF will become a new norm and if it all it becomes a norm[2], then will that norm shift to some other theatre also which China claims as its own ? Like near the Indian borders in Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh, or near the Doklam Plateau ?


Takeaways from the intercept


Although it has become quite common for the Chinese PLAAF to intercept USAF aircraft over the SCS from the past two years, it has to be noted that this particular intercept happened over the SCS during the night time which itself is quite rare for the PLAAF intercepts. Which means that now the PLAAF pilots are slowly acquiring the skills to fly jets at night time which was considered to be a weak point for the PLAAF couple of years back. This surprising improvement in night time flying also indicates the growing confidence of the PLAAF to exert their dominance over the SCS in night time, which they claim as their own.


      Also, from the video feed released by the USINDOPACOM, the J-11 jet is seen to be intercepting the B-52 Bomber, which is itself not an ordinary aircraft as the press release seems to suggest, but it is the legendary Stratofortress Bomber, which is manufactured by Boeing. The Boeing B-52 primarily provides the US with immediate nuclear and conventional global strike capability. As per Boeing, launched in the year 1961 and originally designed as an intercontinental, high-altitude nuclear bomber, the B-52’s operational capabilities have advanced over the years to meet changing national defense needs.[3] Also it is said to perform strategic attack (SA), close-air support (CAS), air-interdiction (AI), offensive counter-air (OCA) and maritime operations (MO).


      Now, if the above facts are considered in this said event, as per the statement released, this B-52 didn’t undertake any OCA operation is this intercept. It was well understood to have adopted a safer approach and seemed to have flown away from the PLAAF J-11 fighter jet maintaining a safe distance. There was no hint of any counter measures to deter the PLAAF J-11 manoeuver. This can have various strategic meanings going forward for the operations of both the USAF and the PLAAF in the coming future over the SCS or other zones.


USAF will face more PLAAF intercepts in future


The USAF non-fighter fixed wing category aircrafts like the Bombers, Aerial Refuellers, Surveillance aircrafts like the P-8A Poseidon (designed and developed by the same OEM Boeing like B-52), now will face an increased chances of getting intercepted by the PLAAF over the SCS even at night time after this incident since all these aircrafts regularly fly through that region. The US already has stated that it will continue to fly, sail, and operate –safely and responsibly – wherever international laws allow and that the USINDOPACOM Joint Force remains dedicated to a free and open Indo-Pacific region.[4]


      In the above US statement, although the US is indicating that it will continue to fly safely and responsibly, it doesn’t mention what countermeasures it will take to deter such events in future? This is a very different posture, way different from how the US reacts in other situations. For example, one being the statements the US makes in other instances like when North Korea fires ballistic missiles over South Korea and Japan where the US is quick to react and release statements to deter North Korea. Other instances include how the US forces face challenging situations in the West Asia from Iran and its proxies.


Lessons for China


The lessons that China will take away from this intercept is that the US won’t perform any deterrence actions against its patrolling PLAAF jets over the SCS. This will give confidence to China that the US is weak in protecting freedom of navigation operations over SCS which it claims as it owns but for the international community it is an international airspace. This again will send confusing signals to US allies in the ASEAN region who also have claims over the SCS and its corresponding air space.


      Not only ASEAN allies, even US NATO ally like Canada has reported that one of its rotary wing aircraft, a CH-148 Cyclone helicopter was intercepted by two PLA J-11 army jets over the SCS on 29 October 2023 while it was conducting routine exercises just like what USAF does over the SCS. One jet eventually conducted a pass over the CH-148 Cyclone helicopter with little separation, causing the helicopter to experience turbulence. The same helicopter was once again intercepted by another J-11 fighter aircraft, which launched flares directly in front of the helicopter. The helicopter pilot had to manoeuvre to avoid the flares and reduce the risk of ingesting a flare into the helicopter's rotor and intakes.[5] This proves that if the US and its allies doesn’t device any deterrence policy for such events, China will expand such operations in other theatres.[6]


Lessons for India and Conclusion:

China has initiated a policy to claims its sovereignty through such unprofessional dangerous intercepts. All those areas which China claims as its own will have such intercepts in the years ahead. Ladakh in Western and Arunachal Pradesh in Eastern theatres may see such activities in future because these are claimed by China and Indian surveillance activities may be challenged in similar fashion. Also, there is a high chance that Chinese may try to claim the waters and airspace around its overseas assets/bases as protected zones like Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and Coco Islands in Myanmar and initiate such intercepts for self-protection tactics.  India should be well prepared to face such scenarios in future.


[1] U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Public Affairs, “Unprofessional Intercept of U.S. B-52 over South China Sea”, USINDOPACOM, 26 October 2023,

[2] Unprofessional Intercept of U.S. B-52 Over South China Sea, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, 26 Oct 2023

[3] B-52 Bomber, Boeing, n.d,


[4] U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Public Affairs, Ibid.

[5] National Defence Media Relations, “Statement from the Canadian Armed Forces Regarding Unsafe Intercept of Royal Canadian Air Force Helicopter”, Canadian Armed Forces, 3 November 2023,                                                                                                                                      

[6] Statement from The Canadian Armed Forces Regarding Unsafe Intercept of Royal Canadian Air Force Helicopter, Government of Canada, 03 Nov 2023