U.S. Warplanes Foray Into China Airspace As PLA Jets Disturb Taiwan

The U.S. flew two supersonic heavy bombers into China's air defense identification zone (ADIZ) on Tuesday in an apparent show of force, amid regional uncertainty during the presidential transition period.

U.S. Air Force B-1Bs MAZER01 and MAZER02 were dispatched from Anderson Air Force Base in Guam and entered China's East China Sea ADIZ, northeast of the island of Taiwan, military flight tracker Aircraft Spots noted on Twitter.

USAF B-1Bs MAZER01 & 02 departed Andersen AFB, Guam en route to the East China Sea.

Aerial Refueling with USAF KC-135Rs PEARL21 & 22 in the block FL190-230. pic.twitter.com/QGWlttgZyT

— Aircraft Spots (@AircraftSpots) November 17, 2020

The long-range bombers were refueled by KC-135 Stratotankers PEARL21 and PEARL22 in the Philippine Sea, the account said.

Passing aircraft are expected to notify the national aviation authority when entering a country's marked ADIZ, but the airspace, although widely used, is not internationally defined.

The brief foray into Chinese airspace elicited a response from the People's Liberation Army Air Force, which dispatched two warplanes to head off the B-1Bs, according to a video circulating on Chinese social media platform Weibo.

The minute-long clip appears to include a radio transmission between MAZER01 and an air traffic controller in Tokyo, Japan. Two other voices identifying themselves as Chinese Air Force aircraft then order them to "leave immediately."

The Air Force sortie happened on the same day China sent warplanes of its own into Taiwan's southwest ADIZ, according to the democratic island's Ministry of National Defense.

Two Shaanxi Y-8s probed Taiwan's airspace before turning back as Taipei scrambled its own fighter jets to warn them off, the defense ministry said on its website, which since November has had a section dedicated to PLA aircraft incursions.

Three of the same type of aircraft, including an electronic warfare plane, entered Taiwan's ADIZ Wednesday, the ministry revealed.

Three PLA aircraft (Y-8 ASW, Y-8 EW, and Y-9 EW) entered #Taiwan’s southwest ADIZ on Nov. 18, the flight paths as illustrated. #ROCAF deployed patrolling aircraft and air defense missile systems to monitor the activities. #Guard and #Protectourcountry. pic.twitter.com/2sE0QysCJz

— 國防部 Ministry of National Defense, R.O.C. 🇹🇼 (@MoNDefense) November 18, 2020

The South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI), a Beijing-based think tank, told Newsweek last month that the U.S. had nearly doubled its number of spy plane missions to China since President Barack Obama took office in 2009.

The Air Force has used both traditional reconnaissance aircraft and privately owned spy planes to keep tabs on Chinese military activity in the Yellow Sea, Taiwan Strait as well as the East and South China seas this year, the institute said in its latest report on November 12.

However, Tuesday's sending of some of the Air Force's heaviest bombers—considered non-standard surveillance aircraft—into China's ADIZ had special significance, analysts in Taiwan said. The Trump administration is thought to be warding off any attempts by the Chinese leadership to capitalize on uncertainties in the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election.

Breaking point

PLA aircraft incursions into Taipei's airspace have been a near-daily occurrence since September, Taiwan's defense ministry's records show.

Analysts say the Chinese military is testing Taiwan's response time, as well as conducting a form of psychological warfare to wear out both the pilots and aging equipment in the island's critically undermanned armed forces.

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen grounded her air force's entire fleet of 150 F-16 fighter jets on Wednesday after one of the aircraft disappeared from radars minutes into a training mission the night before.

Taiwan's military and coast guard were still searching for Colonel Chiang Cheng-chih—sole occupant of the single-seat F-16—at the time of publication.

There have been seven major incidents involving American-made F-16s in Taiwan to date. The aircraft have been in use in the Taiwan Air Force for more than two decades.

The fleet was purchased from the United States in 1992 during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. The first batch was delivered in 1997 during Bill Clinton's second term.

Tuesday's incident came just hours after Tsai attended a memorial service in honor of another fighter pilot who died when his F-5E jet crashed into the sea shortly after take-off on October 29.

U.S. Air Force B-1B
File photo: A U.S. Air Force Rockwell B-1B Lancer long-distance bomber. Sean Gallup/Getty Images