US spy plane appears in South China Sea amid increased tensions with Beijing

One of the US Navy’s MQ-4C Triton high altitude long endurance (HALE) reconnaissance drones was spotted entering the South China Sea on Wednesday – the latest addition to an increasingly long list of US spy planes plying the waterway in recent months.

The unmanned aerial vehicle was spotted entering the northern end of the South China Sea via the Bashi Channel on Wednesday, where it seemed to zero-in on some object of interest before departing the region

Sputnik reported in January on the stationing of the US Navy’s first two MQ-4C Tritons on Guam, at the far side of the Philippine Sea from the Bashi Channel, noting at the time that the aircraft’s wide radius of operations would allow it to enter parts of the strategic waterway where Washington disputes many of China’s claims of sovereignty.

While one day the US Navy hopes to use Tritons, which it specially adapted from the Air Force’s RQ-4 Global Hawk for nautical surveillance, to patrol the entire western Pacific region, for now appearances of the Tritons remain relatively rare.

Their deployment to Guam represents the achievement of early operational capability (EOC) for the unmanned aircraft, which will only see more regular use once testers are satisfied they’ve ironed out many of the system’s remaining bugs. According to The Diplomat, that could be achieved sometime next year.

The Triton is reportedly capable of staying aloft for more than 24 hours at a time and can soar at altitudes up to 10 miles, or 53,000 feet. It is unarmed.

However, the Navy and Air Force have a bevy of surveillance aircraft in the region, which have recently been flying daily patrols across the South China Sea, East China Sea and Philippine Sea.

The day prior, an E-8C Joint STARS aircraft, a massive electronic intelligence, surveillance and command and control platform modified from a Boeing 707 airliner, was spotted patrolling the waters off Guangdong Province, near Hong Kong.

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