How U.S. Spy Planes Could Endanger Commercial Aircraft Near China

A couple of weeks ago China threatened to shoot down civilian aircraft. They claimed US spy planes were disguising themselves as commercial flights, and that put all commercial flights in jeopardy.

“It’s a common trick for the US Air Force to impersonate the transponder code of civilian aircraft from other countries … It is of a vile nature,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said earlier this week.

“We urge the US to immediately stop such dangerous provocations, to avoid accidents from happening in the sea and air.”

It’s striking that China publicly indicated a willingness to shoot down planes whether they’re sure those planes are U.S. spy aircraft or not. Whether that reflects an actual willingness or not, it evinces a fundamental disregard for human life. In the face of such threats, though, if the U.S. is indeed doing this then continuing is irresponsible.

Now the Philippines is claiming that the U.S. may be trying to ‘test’ Chinese reaction when a “US Air Force’s RC-135S reconnaissance plane changed its hex code to one assigned to a Philippine aircraft when it flew over the Yellow Sea between the Chinese coast and Korea peninsula.”

“The (US) pilots are probably trying to test the reaction that would come from China and so the Chinese reacted and it came out in the news,” [Philippines National Security Advisor] Esperon said at a press briefing.

…The hex code is the registered identification code of the aircraft at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Esperon said the Yellow Sea is not an area where the Philippines commonly goes to and the incident was expected to raise suspicion.

“We usually stay within our domain in air and maritime patrols,” said Esperon, a former armed forces chief. “No going to the Yellow Sea for surveillance. So when you notice a Philippine code comes to the area, then all the more it brings suspicion,” he said.

According to Esperon, the incident should be discussed with US officials as it could “incriminate” the Philippines.

China has declared this to be a dangerous game because they’ll make it dangerous yet it appears the U.S. may be continuing to play.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Militaries around the world do it, it’s nothing new. Chinese military would also do it if it would be convenient for them. Besides, this fly bys are happening at sea, international sea, that China illegally claims as it’s own. US is not flying over Chinese territory, as it would be a war provocation, like if China would be crossing Taiwanese or Korean or Philippino or Japanese or Vietnamese or, well, you get the idea.

  2. having flown military reconnaissance planes (not “spy” planes…. it’s a legal thing, not just a semantic) the story is jilted. military aircraft due NOT use “hex codes assigned to _____ country aircraft”. they just don’t transmit an IFF at all.

    military flights do NOT put civilian traffic at risk. poor air defense ID procedures and sloppy military intercept procedures do

  3. Your source story looks like a lot of BS.

    If true, the US evinces a fundamental disregard for human life by using civilian aircraft callsigns as a shield; there’s no excuse whatsoever for it.

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