Chinese think tank says there’s been ‘huge increase’ in US spy plane flights over South China Sea

Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint
An Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, July 24, 2015.

  • US reconnaissance flights have been constant this year, a Beijing-based think tank says.
  • The number of flights that the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative reported in May was twice that of a year ago.
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The United States conducted 72 reconnaissance flights over the South China Sea in May, maintaining a constant presence over the disputed waters, a Beijing-based think tank said.

The South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative said in a monthly summary on Thursday that there was a slight month-on-month rise in US reconnaissance flight operations near China’s coast in May, from 65 in April.

But it said the number was a “huge increase compared with the corresponding period last year, which was only 35.”

The think tank previously reported record US spy plane operations over the disputed sea, numbering 70 in January and 75 in February. It said the US Navy operated 57 of the 72 sorties in May, and the US Air Force the remainder.

Military commentator and former People’s Liberation Army (PLA) instructor Song Zhongping said reconnaissance flights from the US over the South China Sea were becoming more normal.

“The PLA’s military capabilities are constantly improving, and the US military is increasingly worried,” he said. “On the other hand, the US military is also preparing for combat. Therefore, it has to increase reconnaissance against the PLA.

“This reminds us that we need to be prepared for military confrontations against the United States.”

Marine Corps Marines refueling Navy P-8 Poseidon
US Marines train with a US Navy P-8 Poseidon in the Pacific region during Exercise Noble Fury 21, October 9, 2020.

When the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur was transiting the Taiwan Strait last month, US anti-submarine patrol and reconnaissance aircraft and a spy plane were flying over the South China Sea, said the think tank, which monitors military activity in the region. It said the aircraft were “probably providing the intelligence support for the warship.”

Beijing called the transit a “provocation” and said it sent “wrong signals” to supporters of Taiwan independence.

Last month, the Chinese defence ministry said the US had ramped up reconnaissance activities near China’s coast during Joe Biden‘s US presidency.

It said such operations had increased by more than 20% for US warships and 40% for planes in and around waters claimed by China, compared with the same period last year under the Donald Trump administration.

Biden in April used his first address to the joint sessions of Congress to cast the US-China relationship as a battle in century-defining technologies and vowed to “maintain a strong military presence” in the Indo-Pacific region – “not to start conflict, but to prevent one”.

Last week, Beijing said the US should show “sincerity” about improving communication between their militaries.

“We urge the US to walk the talk, show sincerity and meet the Chinese side halfway to strengthen dialogue and communication and to properly manage disputes,” defence ministry spokesman Tan Kefei said.

Additional reporting by Kristin Huang.

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The legendary SR-71 set 4 different speed records on its final flight across the US

SR-71 Blackbird
  • The retirement of the SR-71 in 1990 was a contentious issue, seen by critics as a decision motivated by political concerns rather than military considerations.
  • But the legendary SR-71 went out on top, setting four air speed records on its final flight across the US.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Usually, when someone or something retires, it’s because they’ve grown a little older – and maybe a little slower – over time. Maybe their skills aren’t as useful as they once were, so they opt to spend their sunset years peacefully watching others take over their old duties.

But not the SR-71 Blackbird. It went out with a sonic boom.

The SR-71 was in the prime of its amazing life. This was a titanium bird designed to outrun and spy on the Russians, a bird that was fooling Russians even before it was assembled.

When the Blackbird was retired in 1990, not everyone was thrilled with the idea. Much of the debate around the SR-71’s mission and usefulness was because of political infighting, not because of any actual military need the plane couldn’t fill.

Still, the program was derided by Congressional military and budget hawks as being too costly for its designated mission. Some speculate the old guard of Air Force Cold Warriors had long since retired and newer generals couldn’t explain the plane’s mission in the post-Soviet order.

Whatever the reason for its retirement, the Air Force’s most glorious bird was headed for the sunset – but not before making history and setting a few more records.

When it was operationally retired in 1990, a Blackbird piloted by Lt. Col. Raymond E. Yeilding and Lt. Col. Joseph T. Vida was tasked to fly one last time from Palmdale, California, to its new home at the Smithsonian Institution’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

Apparently, they had somewhere to be in the DC area that day, too. During that Blackbird’s final flight on March 7, 1990, the plane and its pilots set four new speed records:

1. West Coast of the United States to the US East Coast – 2,404 miles in 68:17.

sr-71 spy plane

2. Los Angeles, California, to Washington, DC – 2,299 miles in 64:20.

sr-71 spy plane

3. Kansas City, Missouri, to Washington, DC – 942 miles in 25:59.


4. St. Louis, Missouri, to Cincinnati, Ohio – 311 miles in 8:32.

sr-71 spy plane

The SR-71 refueled in mid-air over the Pacific Ocean before beginning its transcontinental journey. It arrived at Dulles International Airport to a throng of onlookers and well-wishers who knew a good thing when they saw one.

Addressing the full Senate after the historic, record-setting 1990 flight, Sen. John Glenn told the assembly that the flight would be remembered as “a sad memorial to our short-sighted policy in strategic aerial reconnaissance.”

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