Early Wednesday morning, a US Air Force RC-135S Cobra Ball aircraft took off from Kadena Air Force Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa, bound for the Yellow Sea. However, researchers at a Chinese think tank soon noticed the US plane had been replaced on aircraft-tracking sites by a mysterious Malaysian plane, which then flew orbits for six hours over the Yellow Sea before flying for Okinawa.
Later on the same route appeared a "Malaysian plane"(#752B29), which entered the #YellowSea, hovered over and over from 5 am to 11 am, which probably was the RC-135S in disguise, collecting data on ballistic missiles from #PLA's military exercises held in #BohaiSea.[2/2] pic.twitter.com/bjFfLeaO59— SCS Probing Initiative (@SCS_PI) September 9, 2020
According to the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI), a think tank associated with China’s Peking University, the plane’s behavior matched that of an RC-135S Cobra Ball sent to watch People’s Liberation Army missile tests in the Bohai Sea that day. The Cobra Ball is a specialized intelligence aircraft with equipment for collecting data on ballistic missile tests.
Sputnik reported the day prior that a relative of the Cobra Ball, an RC-135W Rivet Joint signals intelligence plane, had performed a similar maneuver over the South China Sea. In that incident, the Rivet Joint also disguised itself as a Malaysian plane before flying back and forth in the waterway between the Paracel Islands and Hainan for several hours.
The maneuver is accomplished by changing the plane’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) hex code identifier, a unique number tied to its ICAO registration that tells other planes, ships and radar sites information such as type and nationality, as well as position in the sky. The US spy planes must have turned off their US transponders and turned other ones with fake hex codes in the range of those used by Malaysian aircraft.
Sputnik has documented numerous other instances of US spy planes engaging in this practice or using civilian aircraft as cover - which in at least one instance resulted in a Korean airliner getting shot down by a Soviet interceptor over the Soviet Union’s Sakhalin Island in 1983, killing hundreds.
China’s Maritime Safety Administration has closed off several parts of the Yellow Sea for military drills over the past few weeks, with the latest including live-fire exercises on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to India’s Economic Times.
On Tuesday, a European Space Agency Sentinel satellite managed to capture a photo of China’s sole commissioned Type 055 destroyer, the Nanchang, firing a missile during drills just off the Liaodong Peninsula.
#EXCLUSIVE : Satellite image Sentinel-2 shows the Chinese destroyer Type 055 launching a missile in the Yellow Sea today.— Sushmit Patil Сушмит Патил सुश्मित पाटिल (@PatilSushmit) September 8, 2020
Live-fire exercises will be held by China in the southern part of the Yellow Sea on Tuesday and Wednesday near Lianyungang city. pic.twitter.com/4AKXIzzYMk
The launch happened in the same Yellow Sea restricted zone highlighted by the SCSPI in relation to the RC-135S flight, meaning the spy plane could have been watching the drill in question or collecting information about its aftermath.
Days earlier, China’s two aircraft carriers, Liaoning and Shandong, drilled together for the first time in another part of the waterway.