Images from real-time aircraft tracking websites imply that a People’s Liberation Army warplane recently flew beneath a commercial airliner near Taiwan. This has raised apprehensions about the possibility of mainland forces rehearsing an attack on the island while using civilian aircraft as a disguise.
The PLA aircraft in question is a Y-9 electronic warfare plane, and it was observed flying beneath Cathay Pacific flight CX366 from Hong Kong to Shanghai on September 24.
Screenshots illustrating an unusual flight trajectory, supposedly taken from real-time aircraft tracking websites, have circulated on social media platforms. The Liberty Times, a Taiwan-based news outlet, was the first to report this development.
Based on information available online, it is reported that the Y-9 aircraft briefly trailed Flight CX366 along the M503 route, which runs from South to North and comes as close as 7.8 km (4.8 miles) to the median line at its nearest point.
The People’s Liberation Army Air Force is reportedly using commercial aircraft to cover their aircraft in gray zone operations against Taiwan.
Here, a Y-9 communications aircraft follows Cathay Pacific flight 366, a flight from Hong Kong to Shanghai. pic.twitter.com/EHUs20AfNB
— 陳彥翰 Chen Yen-Han 🌻 (@chen_yenhan) September 25, 2023
Subsequently, the Y-9 descended directly beneath the commercial airliner and maintained a vertical position, all within a few kilometers of the de facto median line in the Taiwan Strait.
The screenshots further suggest that the military transport aircraft disappeared from the real-time map for 10 minutes, only becoming visible after the passenger plane continued its northbound course toward Shanghai Pudong Airport, China.
The M503 route, where the unusual activity of Chinese military aircraft was detected, was established by Beijing in 2018 with the approval of the International Civil Aviation Organization, despite Taipei’s repeated objections regarding its proximity to Taiwan’s flight information region.
The event occurred the same day the ministry announced an increase in People’s Liberation Army (PLA) activity along the mainland’s border facing Taiwan.
Last week, China conducted what seemed to be a series of amphibious exercises involving fighters, drones, bombers, other aircraft, and warships.
These exercises were in addition to the PLA’s regular incursions or flights near the median line, approaching areas close to the island.
In the meantime, Cathay Pacific said that Flight CX366 from Hong Kong to Shanghai Pudong on September 24 operated without any disruptions and reached its destination as scheduled.
PLA ‘Trojan Horse’ Tactic
Since last year, China has increased its military drills and exercises near Taiwan, increasing their scale, frequency, and intensity. These actions enhance China’s readiness for potential military operations against Taiwan.
As part of these efforts, China has dispatched warships and aircraft across the median line of the Taiwan Strait and into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.
The Chinese military has also conducted exercises near Taiwan’s waters, deployed assets in proximity to areas within 24 nautical miles of Taiwan, and launched cyberattacks targeting critical government agencies and infrastructure.
A Washington-based Defense analyst, Ben Lewis, told EurAsian Times, “The PLA might attempt to use civilian airliners as a cover for military aircraft.”
He added, “I don’t think it makes that much of a difference for them. The PLA is attempting to normalize their military activities around Taiwan as much as possible, so hiding behind a civilian craft, while incredibly irresponsible, doesn’t serve that goal.”
Lewis explained, “Beijing has spent the last three years gradually expanding the size and scope of its military activities around Taiwan, especially in the air. This is an attempt by China to degrade the status quo and normalize the use of military forces to intimidate smaller countries.”
Meanwhile, Retired Taiwanese Air Force Lieutenant General Chang Yen-ting, as quoted by SCMP, characterized this maneuver as a “Trojan horse” tactic, which would essentially reduce the military aircraft’s radar signature to just a single, inconspicuous point on radar screens.
Chang Yen-ting further expressed concern, saying, “If three or five communist warplanes flew in formations in a vertical up-and-down position, using civilian airliners as cover, we might be caught in a surprise attack as the warplanes would be able to fly to Taipei and other major cities in just five to 10 minutes.”
Chang highlighted that such a tactic could significantly reduce the time available for Taiwan’s response if communist warplanes carried out a surprise air attack using the “Trojan Horse” approach through the M503 flight route while concealed among civilian airplanes.
Another Taiwan-based expert has also suggested that the PLA might consider using third-party planes as a cover for a surprise attack.
He cites a previous incident involving Israeli F-16 pilots using a reconnaissance plane as a shield during missile strikes in Syria in 2018, leading to a Syrian missile’s accidental downing of a Russian plane. Israel denied responsibility, attributing the incident to Syria.