On February 24 a Chinese J-11 fighter jet intercepted an U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft over the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The fighter carried four air to air missiles, and shadowed the American aircraft for over an hour. It reportedly flew as close as 150 metres off the port side of its target during some stages of the interception. J-11B fighters have been forward deployed to outlying South China Sea islands since the late 2010s, and provide a first line of defence as the U.S. and many of its Western allies increase their military presences in the area. The class is prized for its capacity to carry a particularly large sensor suite, significantly heavier than that on any Western fighter, as well as its very high endurance, high flight performance and access to a range of advanced missile classes. Bases hosting J-11s in the South China Sea are protected by advanced air defence networks centred around the HQ-9B long range system, which alongside the fighters themselves provides the leading anti aircraft capability at China’s forward outposts.
Although the J-11 series began production in the late 1990s as an improved derivative of the Soviet Su-27 Flanker air superiority fighter, the J-11B represents a further enhanced iteration that began to join the fleet the following decade from 2009. The class remained in production until 2018, and the fleet is currently being modernised to the J-11BG standard to integrate fifth generation level armaments and avionics including an AESA radar and PL-15 air to air missiles. As the operations of American reconnaissance aircraft, destroyers and strategic bombers near Chinese waters have long been seen by Beijing as provocative, China has deployed increasingly capable assets to counter them with the J-11’s successor, the J-20 air superiority fighter, beginning to take over the role of patrolling the East and South China Seas from 2022. The J-20 has been involved in multiple incidents intercepting American military aircraft including F-35 stealth fighters. Its deployment has been particularly notable since, alongside the F-35, it is the only fighter of its generation in production and fielded at squadron level strength.