Intelligence: The Chicken War Revived


October 4, 2021: The U.S. Navy has been seeking new ways to prepare its aircraft and ship crews to better deal with the increasing number of incidents where hostile nations use their jet fighters or ships to disrupt legal operations by foreign ships and aircraft. Since 2001 the navy has regularly introduced new techniques for dealing with this problem. The major problem is keeping current the training pilots and ship captains receive to deal with these constantly evolving threats. The best example of this is hostile nations coming up with new ways to use their aircraft or ships to operate dangerously close to American aircraft or warships. Most of the research on how to deal with these incidents involved developing new tactics and training aircraft and ship crews to use these during a growing number of incidents. The latest effort is a training course U.S. Navy P-8A crews undergo that includes some realistic exercises with American jet fighters playing the role of the aggressor. This way the crew of the larger, slower and less nimble target aircraft will gain some practical experience in how to maneuver during these incidents but also doing so while other members of the crew practice using onboard electronic devices to capture photographic and electronic evidence of the incident. These practices often take the hostile fighter pilots by surprise when they claim that the larger American aircraft was the aggressor and that the fighter or ship operated lawfully. Crews began spontaneously doing this with the cell phone cameras and those efforts were often visible to the harassing aircraft pilots, who were dismayed to see that evidence of any illegal maneuvers could not just be denied. Now some less visible countermeasures are being used as crews of the larger aircraft are learning how to use their passive (listen only) and active sensors to gather more evidence of the incident and even electronically disrupt the enemy efforts. The larger aircraft have more electronics on board as well as many more experts on board to operate these systems. Now the navy is training the onboard sensor operators as well as the pilots.

The need for such training was a lesson the navy learned the hard two decades ago when one such incident turned into an American intelligence disaster. In April 2001 a Chinese fighter pilot got too close and made contact with a navy EP-3E four-engine that was in international airspace, but close enough to monitor Chinese electronics on the coast or offshore. The Chinese F-8 fighter crashed, killing the pilot while the badly damaged EP-3E had to make a forced landing at the nearest airbase, which was in China. Although the crew was able to destroy much of the secret hardware, software, and data on the EP-3E, it was feared that some sensitive material fell into Chinese hands. This forecast was later confirmed.

The EP-3E, was a derivative of the P-3C Orion anti-submarine warfare airplane. The large (24 personnel) crew of the EP-3, that made a forced landing on China's Hainan Island, did not destroy all classified materials aboard. This loss of data and the collision itself was avoidable if the crew had been better prepared to handle it.

During the minutes following the collision the EP-3 pilots had to recover from a temporary loss of control they had bever been trained to handle. Meanwhile the navy intelligence personnel on board frantically threw classified documents out an aircraft hatch and smashed classified equipment to prevent it from falling into Chinese hands intact enough to be understood and copied. After an emergency landing at a Chinese airfield on Hainan Island, the crew continued to manually shred classified documents. Not all the material could be destroyed. The navy incident report noted that the destruction of classified material was accomplished while the aircrew were still in shock from the aircraft collision and the subsequent rapid descent of the aircraft. They had very little time to complete the task before landing. The navy concluded that the crew was not equipped or trained for rapid destruction of data. China held the EP-3E crew for ten days before releasing them. The EP-3E was taken apart and returned three months later in that state. The navy put the EP-3 back together and returned it to service.

The body of the Chinese fighter pilot was never found, apparently because the collision brought the tail and canopy in contact with the cockpit canopy as well as the tail of the jet. This killed the pilot before or after he ejected. A second J-8 was present and its pilot had an imperfect view of the actual collision. China tried to blame the EP-3 pilot for causing the collision and China demanded over a million dollars in compensation. The U.S. refused and the Chinese backed off. After getting the crew back and debriefing them the navy made major improvements in equipment destruction equipment and procedures. Pilots were given more training on how to handle similar incidents in the future. China did the same with their pilots and while the harassment missions continued, the Chinese pilots were much less reckless.

The Russians had practiced even more dangerous interception tactics from the late 1940s until the increasingly effective American and NATO countermeasures persuaded the Russians to sign the “Chicken of the Sea” treaty in 1972 in which everyone agreed to halt these tactics and countermeasures. The informal name for these dangerous tactics came from an American term for a dangerous game often played by American teenage drivers, when two will drive at each other at high speed until one driver “chickens out” and swerves. Sometimes both participants lose when no one swerves in time. Many Russians adopted a Russian language version of the term and understood what this meant in the age of nuclear weapons. The 1972 treaty was the first of many disarmament treaties signed over the next fifteen years. The Chinese were not part of the 1972 treaty but did resume the use of the Russian tactics in the late 1990s, less than three decades after the 1972 treaty and a quarter-century of no one doing this sort of thing.

By 2014 China and Russia were both harassing American warships and aircraft and ignoring the 1972 treaty. This was seen in an early 2020 incident in the Persian Gulf when a Russian Navy ship appeared to be on a collision course with an American destroyer. The American ship used the internationally warning signal (five short horn blasts) but the Russian ship kept coming then turned away. A similar incident took place in mid-2017 in the Eastern Pacific. There have been recent incidents in the Mediterranean and Black Seas where Russian warplanes persistently flew low and close to American warships. There have been numerous incidents of Russian warplanes performing similar maneuvers against foreign military aircraft in the Baltic Sea.

The Russians always deny responsibility for these incidents but, with cell phone cameras so widely available, there was always incriminating video that contradicted the official Russian or Chinese denials, or accusations that it was the fault of the Americans. The Cold War “Chicken of the Sea” confrontations were mainly about keeping American ships from closely observing Russian warships or intelligence ships at sea. It was also about young Russian naval officers showing their bosses that they had the right stuff to deal with the Americans. But the Chinese were not just using these tactics to keep the Americans at a distance or for commanders to show off. China was mainly about asserting sovereignty and control over areas, like the South China Sea, where China, according to international law and treaties China signed, has no legitimate claim.

The Chinese use of these tactics seems reckless compared to the later Russian methods. The earliest incidents often included shooting down American intel collecting aircraft that got too close. This resulted in realistic threats to retaliate that caused them to back off on their murderous tactics. The Russians used warships to make these threatening maneuvers while the Chinese would often use commercial vessels, especially fishing ships, to “get in the way.” The Chinese also use these tactics on the high seas (international waters) where there is no disputed territory and a high risk for deadly and expensive accidents. This has led some American naval officers and admirals to believe that some of this behavior is the result of inexperience on the part of Chinese naval officers mixed with a bit of arrogance and recklessness.

Naval historians see familiar patterns here as well. When the Chinese Empire built its first modern, Western style navy in the late 19th century, the force was crippled by corruption, arrogance and inexperience. This led to a defeat at the hands of the similarly modernized, but much more diligent and pragmatic Japanese. From there the Japanese went on to defeat Russia at sea and on land in 1904-1905. It was unprecedented for East Asians to defeat a Western nation. The Japanese then joined the Allies in World War I and quickly conquered German colonies in the Pacific. Japan got to keep some of those conquests after World War I but felt they had received insufficient respect from their Western allies and that resentment fueled arrogance which led to Japan attacking the United States and other World War I allies in 1941. That ended badly for the Japanese, a lesson that seems lost on the current generation of Chinese naval leaders. China did not misunderstand, they simply adapted their tactics to their current circumstances.

China is trying to obtain disputed territory with “grab and negotiate” tactics. The way this works the Chinese would quickly mobilize forces and seize some territory from India, South Korea or Japan and then offer to make peace. This can work but is highly risky if you are facing a foe, like the Japanese, who are better trained, very determined and more experienced in naval operations. Failing to achieve victory with such tactics would be disastrous for the Chinese leadership which is also disliked by its own people because of corruption and mismanagement. The “grab and make peace” tactics might work against the Philippines or Vietnam but against a more determined neighbor with more powerful air and naval forces, it could get messy and result in a very embarrassing Chinese defeat. China could threaten to use nukes, but to do so would be crossing a line that no one else has dared to do since 1945. China is playing a very dangerous game here and some American analysts fear too many Chinese leaders are unaware (or don’t care) how dangerous this is. An ominous aspect of this is that the Japanese, with one of the most powerful navies in East Asia, are determined not to back down if the Chinese apply pressure, and make it clear they are ready and willing to fight. This gives experienced and history-minded Chinese naval commanders pause. Chinese political leaders are another matter.

Why the Russians have revived these harassment tactics is less clear. In some respects, it may be a reaction to the greater presence of American and NATO ships and aircraft off the Russian coast than the other way around. The Cold War era Soviet Union fleet was the second largest in the world until the Soviet Union collapsed and dissolved in 1991. One reason for that collapse was the ruinous amount of money the Russians were spending on their armed forces, especially the navy. That and the massive amount of damage the communist practice of state ownership of the economy caused national bankruptcy. The mighty Soviet fleet rapidly fell apart after the collapse. Many of the ships were poorly designed and built and their conscript crews unable to properly maintain them. After 1991 the number of Russian military personnel shrank to 20 percent of their Cold War strength. Since the late 1990s the Russians, now with a somewhat more efficient semi-market economy, have been trying to rebuild their fleet but have not been very successful. It is believed the Russians see these intimidation tactics as good for morale, showing the West that the tiny Russian fleet is not to be messed with.

NATO is once more in and more dealing with another outbreak of “Chicken of the Sea” behavior by a hostile nuclear power. What could possibly go wrong?




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