With the Untied States Navy and Air Force having frequently conducted what it terms ‘freedom of navigation’ operations in the South China Sea, waters which China claims as its sovereign territory, Beijing has long criticised what it views as territorial infringements as highly provocative violations of its sovereignty.
China has responded to the United States and its Western allies’ growing presence in the region both by fortifying islets across the sea with advanced defensive missiles, combat aircraft and jammers, as well as by conducting large scale naval manoeuvres in the South China Sea and deploying some of its most advanced fighters to the area.
More recently, Beijing appears to have responded more directly with a minor electronic attack on a U.S. Naval taskforce operating the region. The U.S. Navy’s Nimitz Class supercarrier USS Theodore Roosevelt reported having had the equipment of one of its fighters interfered with during operations, in what was likely a warning by Beijing regarding the extent of its tolerance of American actions in the region.
A U.S. Navy pilot operating an EA-18G Growler carrier based attack jet from the USS Theodore Roosevelt reported that Chinese jamming had interfered with his plane’s equipment, stating: ”The mere fact that some of your equipment is not working is already an indication that someone is trying to jam you. We have an answer to that.” The growler is itself a specialised electronic warfare attack platform based on the airframe of the F-18E Super Hornet.
The incident comes just days after reports that China’s PLA has deployed advanced jamming equipment to the South China Sea, in the same month that Russia has also reportedly deployed advanced jammers to Syria and begun interference with U.S. drone operations in the contested Middle Eastern theatre. Russia has in the past conducted more serious electronic attacks on U.S. warships in the Black Sea.
The PLA for its part has not confirmed U.S. claims, but America’s allegations are likely to be met with a response by the United States. With the U.S. military already overstretched in its commitments and heavily prioritising deployments to the Asia-Pacific region, responding by deploying more forces to the region remains unlikely. Reciprocal electronic attacks on Chinese assets do however remain a possibility.
China for its part has notably expanded its electronic warfare capabilities, developing a number of new electronic warfare aircraft based on the airframes of tried and tested platforms. Electronic warfare variants of the H-6 strategic bomber and the JH-7 and J-16 long range strike fighters have all been developed in the last two years, and all retain long ranges needed to strike operate against hostile naval targets far out at sea.
The H-6’s range could also potentially facilitate electronic attacks on U.S. forward military bases including those in Guam, Okinawa and Hawaii, and the PLA has notably made great efforts to develop capabilities to target such facilities – both kinetic and non kinetic. While the U.S. EA-18G was developed to operate from carriers to compensate for its relatively short range, China’s PLA currently relies on long ranged land based combat platforms.
This could well change in future however, with Beijing’s induction of new aircraft carriers having led the PLA Navy to develop a number of new support aircraft for carrier operations – and an electronic warfare variant of the J-15 Flying Shark carrier based heavy platform remaining a significant possibility.