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A Bombardier CL-650 was among the aircraft sent to the region, according to a Beijing-based think tank. Photo: US Navy

US military using private spy planes to keep tabs on China, think tank says

  • Move will help boost its operational capabilities in the region and may reduce tensions, according to South China Sea Probing Initiative
  • It says three such aircraft carried out patrols in the East China, Yellow and South China seas from March to August

Privately operated reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft have been sent to Asia to help the US keep watch on Chinese activities close to its maritime territory, according to a Beijing-based think tank.

The South China Sea Probing Initiative said using the spy planes would help boost the US military’s operational capabilities in the region.

In a report published on Wednesday, the think tank said three such surveillance aircraft had been sent to Okinawa in Japan and Manila in the Philippines since March.

A Tenax Aerospace CL-604 landed at the Kadena Air Base in Okinawa on March 30, and patrolled around the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea on April 7, the report said.

It was then sent on a mission over the South China Sea on July 16, with a stop at the Clark Air Base in the Philippines for refuelling.

From March to November 11, the aircraft made 139 flights to the East China Sea, the Yellow Sea and the Taiwan Strait, and 17 flights to the South China Sea, the think tank said.
Private surveillance aircraft are said to have been sent to the US Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. Photo: Kyodo

Another surveillance aircraft, a Bombardier CL-650, was also deployed to the East China Sea on August 3, and to the South China Sea on August 20.

That plane carried out nine reconnaissance and surveillance flights over the East China Sea, Yellow Sea and the northern part of the Taiwan Strait, it flew over the South China Sea four times, and entered South Korean airspace five times.

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The think tank described the plane’s activities near China over a period of about six weeks as being “like a test to see Chinese reactions”.

A third surveillance aircraft from Meta Special Aerospace meanwhile landed in Manila on August 14 and also carried out missions nearby.


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The think tank said the private aircraft were being used as part of joint efforts with the US military, but they could also help to reduce the risk of conflict in the region.

“There is more flexibility in using jets from private companies and it can reduce diplomatic tensions compared with military aircraft [carrying out the same activities],” the report said. “This also signals that the US will step up its presence in the Indo-Pacific region through a collaboration between the military, coastguard and private security sector.”

Song Zhongping, a former instructor with the PLA’s Second Artillery Corps, said the use of private aircraft showed a forward-looking approach.

“This kind of outsourcing will save costs for the US military,” he said. “This is definitely a good thing for the US military. There will be more and more ways to outsource [military activities] in the future. This is also an important area where the civilian and military sectors can integrate.”

Additional reporting by Kristin Huang

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: US military ‘using private surveillance planes’ to keep a watch on China