A Test of Wills: ISR Missions Must Be Protected Now

The Pentagon has rightfully issued a condemnation of aggressive intercepts of U.S. military conducting Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions. Ely Ratner, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs recently stated that over the last two years People’s Liberation Army aircraft of both the Air Force (PLAAF) and Navy Air Force (PLANAF) have conducted several hundred “risky and coercive” intercepts of U.S. and allied aircraft. These include 180 against U.S. aircraft and an additional 100 against allied aircraft. Ratner admitted these dangerous intercepts were part of a “centralized and concerted” campaign by the PRC to coerce the U.S. and its allies from conducting ISR missions within the First Island Chain.

The U.S. has a long history of conducting these unarmed missions dating back to the Cold War. The Cold War was a titanic, long-lived struggle with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In the airspace off Korea and Vietnam, it turned hot for the United States. In each, the United States directly, although covertly, engaged the Soviet military. Hundreds of Americans were killed by Soviet pilots flying MiGs or by other aircraft with Chinese or North Korean markings during the Korean War. Of course, in that conflict the United States was fighting a war against the PRC as well. During the Vietnam War, Soviet advisors manned surface-to-air missile sites, and the Chinese manned anti-aircraft artillery sites in North Vietnam.

Additionally, throughout the Cold War, hundreds of U.S. Air Force and Navy crewmen, as well as allied, such as Taiwanese, airmen were killed flying ISR missions on the periphery of the Soviet Union, the PRC, Cuba, or North Korea. At least 264 Americans were Killed in Action (KIA) or declared Missing in Action (MIA) in 36 reconnaissance incidents (of which the public is aware) during the Cold War. These U.S. ISR aircraft flew from bases as far-flung as Thule and Clark, Incirlik and Atsugi, Peshawar, and Shemya. Historians now know that many of the MIAs (at least 130) were captured by the North Koreans, Russians, or Chinese and either killed outright or tortured and imprisoned until they died. Other services suffered as well.

Under the sea, U.S. Navy submariners onboard nuclear submarines endured countless dangers, perhaps the greatest of which was “sub bumping,” a collision with a Soviet submarine. As might be expected, the intelligence community incurred many casualties too. The CIA honors 83 people, almost all of whom died during the Cold War, and the NSA honors 148 cryptologists who were killed. Sometimes innocent civilians were killed, as when the Soviets shot down Korean Air Lines flight 902 in 1978 and flight 007 in 1983.

Their sacrifices should be acknowledged for what they were—death in a long, cold war. In that war, the U.S. refused to be coerced from exercising freedom of navigation operations in maritime or aerial environments against the Soviet Union, the PRC, and other states of the Soviet Bloc.

Given this Cold War history, it is important to heed those lessons today. As such, what was positive about Ratner’s remarks was the explicit reinforcement that the U.S. would not be coerced by the PRC’s bad, and illegal, behavior in international airspace. Those words are important, but they must be supported—that is, explicitly seen and shown—by force protection efforts. This includes having U.S. fighter aircraft escort the ISR aircraft or even having armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) provide support. Force protection is needed to deter what is a clear danger. As Ratner noted, there is every reason to expect that at some point a collision will occur again, like occurred on April 2001, when a U.S. Navy EP-3E was struck by a PLAAF aircraft, killing the Chinese pilot, and generating a Sino-American crisis. In time, both the crew and airframe were returned to the U.S. after the PRC harvested intelligence about U.S. capabilities and technologies.

There is always the risk of escalation when an incident occurs. Therefore, there is every reason to prevent a collision by intercepting the interceptors before a collision occurs. Escorting fighters would be a strong signal that the U.S. will not be denied the exercise of its rights and will protect its aircraft. In the maritime realm, the same applies as there have been many harassing actions directed against U.S. and allied ships, most recently against Filipino naval ships attempting to resupply Second Thomas Shoal—that is, Chinese vessels harassing Filipino ships in their own waters. Due to their unarmed status, scientific and research vessels must be protected by U.S. naval ships in international waters lest they fall victim to intimidation tactics.

The evidence presented by the U.S. Department of Defense shows the Chinese Communist Party’s aggression has been, and continues to be, overt and dangerous. This harassment is a test of wills. It is an effort to coerce the U.S. from exercising those missions in international airspace and thus suffer a loss of credibility in the eyes of Washington’s allies, and the world, while providing fillip to Beijing’s claim to be the new dominant state. One totalitarian state that will inform the rest of the world where it may steam, sail, and fly.

Beijing’s aggression has largely been appeased over the past 25 years and given all else that is happening in the world, this aggression must be halted now before it worsens and results in intentional or inadvertent conflict, such as over the downing of an ISR aircraft and the death of more Americans. The U.S. refused to accept constant Soviet efforts to intimidate it on land, sea, and air. Neither should Washington tolerate this behavior from the PRC in the present Cold War. Arguments that fighter or UAV escorts would degrade the operational readiness of our limited resources are not acceptable. If we can provide arms for wars in Ukraine and Israel, then America’s leaders must provide the resources necessary to protect our airmen and sailors on the front lines of this Cold War—and now.

James Fanell is a government fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy and a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.  Bradley A. Thayer is Director of China Policy at the Center for Security Policy.  He is the coauthor with Lianchao Han of Understanding the China Threat. 

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About James E. Fanell and Bradley A. Thayer

James Fanell is a government fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy and a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Bradley A. Thayer is a Founding Member of the Committee on Present Danger China and the coauthor with Lianchao Han of Understanding the China Threat.

Photo: SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 06: Blue Angels planes fly near Alcatraz Island and Golden Gate Bridge during Fleet Week Air Show in San Francisco, California, United States on October 06, 2023. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

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