According to a count by the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI), a think tank connected to Peking University, the US flew 72 reconnaissance flights across the South China Sea in May. This was more than twice the number flown last year, which was just 35, itself an average of more than one flight per day.
The report breaks down the flights by type of aircraft. The most common were maritime patrol aircraft by P-8A Poseidons, which flew 32 missions last month. Several signals intelligence aircraft also made regular passes, with EP-3E Aires flying 16 missions and RC-135W Rivet Joints flying 12 missions.
#Statistics: The US conducted 72 reconnaissance flights over the #SouthChinaSea near China's coast in May 2021, seeing a slight uptick from 65 in April, but a huge increase compared with the corresponding period last year, which was only 35. pic.twitter.com/1PkyaaLcc4— SCS Probing Initiative (@SCS_PI) June 3, 2021
SCSPI as noted five MQ-4 Triton unmanned aerial vehicle flights, four flights by the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS), which carries a vast array of signals equipment and powerful battlefield mapping radars, and three flights by the RC-135U Combat Sent, an aircraft that specializes in tracking radar and early warning systems. The Pentagon only has two RC-135Us.
May was among the busiest of months ever recorded by the think tank, which noted an all-time high in February of 75 reconnaissance sorties by the United States that month. In April, the number was 65 - still much higher than in prior years.
The number of flights has increased dramatically in recent years, as the US has shifted its strategy toward “great power confrontation” with China and Russia and identified the South China Sea as a place where China must be “contained.” Chinese maritime claims in the waterway contradict those of several other nations, many of which have fortified the small islands to which they have laid claim.
At times, the US aircraft have posed a danger to civilian planes flying through the area, such as in January when a US tanker flew dangerously close to a Taiwanese airliner after refueling a US spy plane, or the repeated habit of US aircraft disguising themselves as civilian jets by broadcasting fake transponder codes in order to surreptitiously fly close to Chinese airspace.
The US Navy didn’t perform any major exercises in the waterway last month, but US warships did carry out “freedom of navigation operations” near the Chinese-controlled Paracel Islands and pass through the Taiwan Strait separating autonomous Taiwan from the Chinese mainland - two provocative actions intended to demonstrate Washington’s contempt for Beijing’s claims over those islands.
SCSPI noted that the destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur engaging in both actions coincided with a period of heightened reconnaissance activity.