David R. Stilwell, former US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs speaks with The Sunday Guardian.
In this edition of “Indo-Pacific: Behind the Headlines”, we speak with David R. Stilwell, the US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs (EAP) from June 2019 to early 2021. Before that, he spent over three decades in the Air Force, achieving the rank of Brigadier General and acting as the Asia advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
He also flew fighter jets and was Director of the China Strategic Focus Group at US Indo-Pacific Command from 2017 to 2019. He served across the Indo-Pacific, including as Defense Attaché in Beijing.
Q: As a former fighter pilot, what do you think about the new iteration of Top Gun?
A: It got off to a rocky start when the producers caved to Beijing pressure to Orwellize Maverick’s leather jacket by censoring the Taiwan flag that was there in the original movie. Thankfully, they later decided to take a stand for free speech and protect history. If this was conceived as a publicity stunt to create buzz around the movie’s release, it worked. Top Gun is on track to see the best performance by a sequel ever. I plan to put on a mask and part with a hard-earned $30 to see it this week.
Unfortunately, China’s People’s Liberation Army is reenacting scenes from Top Gun in real life. Recent incidents of PRC fighters performing extremely dangerous “thumping” maneuvers and deploying chaff in a position to be ingested by Australian and Canadian aircraft jet engines brought back bad memories from 21 years ago.
On 1 April 2001, Chinese pilot Wang Wei lost control of his J-8 Finback fighter while showboating way too close to a US Navy P-3 aircraft. He crashed into the P-3, killing himself, and nearly killing all 24 souls on board an aircraft operating legally in international airspace.
Q: How unusual are these maneuvers?
A: There is simply no excuse for this behaviour, but in “explaining” their recent actions Beijing said, “Stay away from Chinese waters if Canadian military planes do not want to be buzzed”.
International rules and norms? I don’t think so. This also indicates they intend to continue harassing aircraft operating in international airspace.
Beijing tries to justify these actions based on spurious interpretations of international law. There is no way to justify this sort of reckless endangerment of unarmed surveillance aircraft.
Having spent a career as an Air Force air defense pilot, the rules for intercepts are quite clear. They begin with the intercepting aircraft (“fighter”) remaining “well clear” of the intercepted aircraft—“well clear” is generally recognized as 500’.
The fighter’s mission is simply to identify the aircraft, characterize its intent (attack, surveillance, transit), and deal with it according to established rules of engagement. In the vast majority of cases, the fighter’s job is simply to monitor the aircraft. That’s all. There is no scenario where a fighter should take actions that jeopardize the safety of an intercepted reconnaissance aircraft operating in international airspace.
Q: Is this something new?
A: In the past these episodes of unprofessional behaviour appeared to be a result of an immature, aggressive Chinese pilot trying to express his—they’re still all male—displeasure to the crew of the surveillance aircraft. A common tactic involves flying way too close, sometimes beneath the wing, where the fighter’s slightest misstep would result in another collision like the one 21 years ago.
Another unprofessional maneuver is known as “thumping”—flying directly in front of the intercepted aircraft and then turning aggressively to disturb the air the aircraft flies through. Judging distances during this maneuver is very difficult and there have been episodes where collision, structural damage and/or engine flameout were only avoided by the aircrew executing emergency maneuvers to get out of the way.
But the real problem here is the timing—both incidents happened in short succession. Past incidents have been episodic and, I believe, a product of a hot-shot pilot showing off. The fact that these happened in close succession says they were directed from the very top. That is a different situation altogether.
Unlike Hollywood, there are real lives at stake here and significant risk that dangerous maneuvers will lead to rapid, uncontrolled escalation. Beijing should heed its own words of restraint, rein in its pilots, and do all it can to prevent a repeat of 1 April 2001.