Two PLA Air Force (PLAAF) Su-30MKK Flanker-G fighters conducted an “unprofessional” intercept of a U.S. Air Force WC-135C Constant Phoenix radiation detection aircraft over the East China Sea on Wednesday 17 May, according to a report by CNN.
A US official told CNN the Chinese fighter jets came within 150 feet (45.72 metres) of the WC-135C. One of the Su-30MKK plane even flew inverted directly above the US plane, in a manoeuvre similar to the one performed in the Hollywood movie Top Gun, in order to intimidate the US plane.
A U.S. Air Force spokesperson made a statement regarding the incident: “While we are still investigating the incident, initial reports from the U.S. aircrew characterized the intercept as unprofessional. The issue is being addressed with China through appropriate diplomatic and military channels.”
It is not the first time a U.S. military plane to have been intercepted by Chinese military jets, sometimes in close encounters. In February this year, a U.S. Navy P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft and a Chinese military surveillance aircraft came within 1,000 feet of each other over the skies of the South China Sea. In June last year, a USAF RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft was intercepted by a PLAAF Chengdu J-10 fighter, which came within 100 feet (30.48 metres) of the US plane.
It is worth noting that the WC-135C, designed to detect nuclear radiations in the atmosphere, was most likely conducting a surveillance mission targeted at North Korea, rather than monitoring Chinese activities, when the incident occurred.
The four-engine WC-135, nicknamed Nuclear Sniffer, was first introduced in the 1960s for weather reconnaissance and air-sampling missions. There are currently two examples in the C model serving with the U.S. Air Force. The aircraft has been frequently deployed to East Asia in recent years to monitor the missile and nuclear activities by North Korea. The latest deployment began last month, following a North Korea missile test on 3 April.
Similarly, the Chinese military frequently sent its own surveillance and other military aircraft to fly near the air space of its neighbouring countries, including Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, and over the disputed waters in the East and South China Sea.