Unidentified warships recently disrupted communications for both civilian and military flights over the South Pacific and near the Indian Ocean, and China’s navy is suspected of being behind the activity, Inside the Ring has learned.
The electronic interference prevented aircraft from using the Global Navigation Satellite System, run by the European Space Agency, and interfered with an electronic system to measure altitude called RADALT, for radar altimeter. The activity was first disclosed in a March 2 notice by the Montreal-based International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations.
The IFALPA notice provided few details about the incidents and a spokeswoman for the organization did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Pentagon spokesman John Supple said the military has no reports of “aircraft being inappropriately vectored in the region mentioned” in the notice. The incidents appeared to involve non-U.S. civilian aircraft and a foreign military plane that were contacted recently by radio from China’s PLA navy and told to avoid overflying its warships, a defense source said.
U.S. warships as a rule do not engage in disrupting flight communications in peacetime.
The IFALPA notice said “some airlines and military aircraft” were being called over a specific radio frequency “by military warships” in the Pacific, including the South China Sea, the Philippine Sea and east of the Indian Ocean.
Some of the aircraft were given “vectors” that would take them around airspace over the haling warship.
“We have reason to believe there may be interferences to GNSS and RADALT as well,” the notice said.
The notice said all aircraft that are confronted by the warships should ignore the direction.
“Do not respond to the warship,” the notice said. “Immediately report the contact to the controlling [air traffic control] agency.”
The warship communication or satellite navigation interference also should be reported to authorities.
IFALPA states on its website that it represents nearly 100,000 pilots in 10 nations, including China.
Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, former director of the Pacific Fleet’s intelligence unit, said the practice of warships calling civilian and military aircraft appears to be part of a larger Chinese information warfare strategy. Electronic “spoofing” — the use of false radio calls and radar returns to deceive American military forces about locations — was used by the Soviet military during the Cold War.
“But in this most recent case, it appears the [People’s Republic of China] may be attempting to spoof U.S. aircraft, civilian and military, on their own location and thus put them at risk from running out of aviation fuel or entering locations that could put an aircraft at risk from being shot down by PLA forces awaiting unsuspecting American forces,” Capt. Fanell said.
The IFALPA report should not be dismissed by the U.S. government, he said, and could be part of a pattern of other Chinese military actions like the use of lasers against U.S. and allied aircraft and jamming radar and communications.
The Chinese military regularly seeks to disrupt flights by U.S. military surveillance aircraft over the South China Sea and over surrounding waters.
The U.S. government has rejected PLA claims of control over the South China Sea. In recent years U.S. and allied warship transits in the sea and flights by reconnaissance and maritime patrol aircraft have increased, regularly drawing protests from Beijing.
The Navy has said its freedom of navigation operations by warships in the South China Sea are designed to challenge improper restrictions imposed by China. The warships and aircraft are frequently told by radio communications from Chinese military vessels or intercepting aircraft to leave the area.
Military leaders and spokesmen have asserted that U.S. military assets will fly or sail as long as permitted under international law.
U.S. officials contend that all reconnaissance flights are carried out in international airspace and South China Sea transits are conducted in international waters.
A Chinese Embassy spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Intel chiefs see TikTok threat
Senior U.S. intelligence officials on Wednesday weighed in on the congressional debate over whether to ban the Chinese-owned video-sharing app TikTok, agreeing that the platform hugely popular with teenagers presented a data-capturing threat.
FBI Director Christopher Wray told a Senate oversight hearing that TikTok software on millions of electronic devices allows the Chinese government to control personal data because its relationship to app creator ByteDance, a Chinese social media company.
Mr. Wray warned China’s government could use TikTok in information operations to divide Americans or drive a narrative to Americans that self-ruled Taiwan is a Chinese territory and that the United States should not defend the island democracy.
“And I would make the point, on [Taiwan] in particular, that we’re not sure that we would see many of the outward signs of it happening if it was happening,” the FBI director said.
Mr. Wray said Americans need to understand that in the U.S. distinction between the public and private sectors is “a line that is nonexistent in the way the [Chinese Communist Party] operates.”
The federal government and a number of state governments have imposed a ban on TikTok in all government-issued devices, citing security concerns.
Chinese data collection and information operations through TikTok “are among many telling indicators that we should be looking at and assessing the national security concerns this poses,” Mr. Wray said.
Mr. Wray’s concerns were backed by four other intelligence leaders testifying Wednesday before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, including Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines; CIA Director William Burns; Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Scott D. Berrier; and National Security Agency Director Gen. Paul Nakasone.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican has introduced legislation co-sponsored by Sen. Angus King, Maine Independent, that would prohibit all transactions from social media companies under the influence of China, Russia or other foreign states that pose threats.
Mr. Rubio described TikTok as one of the most valuable surveillance tools in the world, allowing China‘s Communist regime to “collect our data, manipulate information, poison and feed garbage to the minds of millions of people.”
“This is a substantial national security threat for the country of a kind that we didn’t face in the past,” Mr. Rubio said.
“At the end of the day, it’s not about some grown man in the middle of the day putting up videos that people that have a job shouldn’t be putting up,” he added. “It’s about all these other things that we’ve talked about — the data, the ability to manipulate information.”
White House downplays China warning
White House strategic communications director John Kirby rejected a warning from Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang this week that the United States and China were heading for war unless Washington alters its policies.
“We seek a strategic competition with China,” Mr. Kirby told reporters on Tuesday. “We do not seek conflict. We aim to compete and we aim to win that competition with China, but we absolutely want to keep it at that level.”
Critics say the Biden administration policy of seeking to both cooperate and compete with China is not working.
The administration has tried to work with China on issues such as global warming and North Korea while competing in a geopolitical Olympics with Beijing.
Chinese officials have rejected the dual approach to ties with the United States and instead repeatedly demanded Washington return to more conciliatory policies. The Chinese even provided a long list of alleged wrongs to be righted, some of which were adopted to mollify the Chinese Communist Party, such as dropping criminal charges against a Huawei Technologies executive.
“Juxtaposing China’s ‘Three Warfares’ strategy with current events, it is clear that the opening salvos in China’s information war against the United States already are ongoing,” the private U.S. Naval Institute reported in 2021.
China’s Communist rulers appear to favor U.S. conservatives, who are openly understood by them as reactionaries.
As for liberals, Mao Zedong wrote an essay in 1937 called “Combat Liberalism” that appears to guide Beijing’s U.S. policy to this day.
“Liberalism is a manifestation of opportunism and conflicts fundamentally with Marxism,” Mao stated. “It is negative and objectively has the effect of helping the enemy; that is why the enemy welcomes its preservation in our midst. Such being its nature, there should be no place for it in the ranks of the revolution.”
— Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.