So ... A Chinese Think Tank Has Beef With the U.S. Air Force. Here's Why.

·3 min read
  • A Chinese think tank with ties to the country's government accused the U.S. Air Force of name-calling.

  • An RC-135S spy plane flew near China earlier this week with the call sign JUNKY81.

  • The think tank claimed that the call sign was a diss at the quality of the People's Liberation Army.

A think tank with ties to the People's Republic of China claims that the U.S. Air Force is trolling the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

On September 6, the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI)—a research policy organization affiliated with Peking University, that generally supports China's claims in the South China Sea—expressed that concern in a tweet. In it, the think tank identifies a U.S. military aircraft, its route, and a particular call sign, which it says "is probably calling PLA names."

Specifically, SCSPI complained that an RC-135S Cobra Ball intelligence-gathering plane (pictured at the top of this story) flew with the call sign JUNKY81, a seemingly innocuous call sign. The organization says that the U.S. Air Force crew aboard the spy plane used the call sign to deliberately insult the Chinese military as it flew near the country's airspace.

The RC-135S Cobra Ball is based on the Boeing 707 jetliner. There are several intel planes based on the 707, but the Cobra Ball's mission is to monitor and gather information on foreign ballistic missile tests. The Air Force describes the planes as full of a "sophisticated array of optical and electronic sensors, recording media, and communications equipment." There are only three Cobra Ball planes in the world.

The RC-135S reportedly flew several days in a row over the Yellow Sea. The flights were almost certainly connected to an impending ballistic missile test from the South Korean submarine Dosan Ahn Chang-ho. The test, a first for South Korea, was conducted on September 7. Any long-range missile launched from South Korea would fly south by southwest across the Yellow Sea, to avoid overflying neighboring Japan, Russia, or China. A RC-135S flying over the sea would be in an ideal position to observe the test.

JUNKY81 includes two references, according to Newsweek. The first, JUNKY, is a reference to the aircrew's opinion of the People's Liberation Army. The rest, according to the news magazine:

The Chinese characters for "8" and "1" appear on official PLA flags and refer to August 1, 1927—the day of the Nanchang Uprising and now regarded as the anniversary of China's armed forces.

On September 1, the same plane, No. 62-4128, flew a similar profile with the call sign GAZEL74. On September 3, the plane flew again with the call sign REFER83.

Interestingly enough, No. 62-4128 flew with the call sign JUNKY81 only after the SCSPI repeatedly called out its previous flights that week on the group's Twitter feed.

A coincidence?

If the allegation is true this is the second salty Air Force call sign in a week. On September 1, a U-2S spy plane flying over California used the call sign GETALIFE. The call sign was seemingly directed at plane spotters who track aircraft like the U-2S—and the Cobra Ball—as a hobby, posting their findings on social media.

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