Let's say some ships from the US Navy are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Is there anything to stop another country, say the Chinese or the Russians flying around them in circles, either to watch what they're doing or just to piss them off and provoke a reaction?

I mean technically it would be international airspace?

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    $\begingroup$ Ah, I think this is called the Flak rule. $\endgroup$ Aug 10, 2018 at 12:18
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    $\begingroup$ anything? yes, the navy fleet itself of course, if the commander wants to, such as when he/she feels such activities is a threat to the safety of his/her fleet. $\endgroup$ Aug 10, 2018 at 12:57
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    $\begingroup$ The reason I ask is because of an article I just read here (a US Navy plane flying over the South China Sea.) The chinese warned them multiple times, but the US just replied saying they weren't in national airspace and can basically do what they want. Would the Chinese have the right to shoot them down? Can the US expect China to do the same thing soon? $\endgroup$
    – cantsay
    Aug 10, 2018 at 13:04
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    $\begingroup$ @cantsay that situation is a subtly different case to the general "high seas" situation which you've asked about - China asserts the islands are Chinese, and thus they are in Chinese airspace (per China, the US disagrees). If it was just two ships passing each other far from land, there would be no "national airspace" claim by either side. $\endgroup$ Aug 11, 2018 at 9:33
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    $\begingroup$ @cantsay ...so the disagreement isn't over whether planes have to follow rules in national airspace, or whether they can do what they want in international waters - both sides more or less agree on that. They just disagree on whether the area is national airspace or international waters. $\endgroup$ Aug 11, 2018 at 9:38

3 Answers 3


There are a few factors and it may also depend on the relations of the nations.

If the aircraft is unarmed and simply surveilling it may be covered under the open skys treaty. This is largely about overflying other nations territories but presumably applies to over flying marine areas as well.

If the aircraft is armed and potentially making a move to attack the fleet may respond by intercepting. This is more or less the plot of Top Gun.

If the aircraft hails from a friendly nation, they may attempt to contact them and may interrogate their IFF system


There's no international "law" governing this, apart from the general rules like not causing a dangerous situation (so no buzzing the deck at 10ft for example).

That said, common courtesy comes into play, meaning that generally people tend to stay far enough away so as not to impede the operation of the other party.

Of course this might be interpreted differently and sometimes, deliberately or otherwise, aircraft and ships of different countries get too close for comfort for one of them.

Think the incidents where Russian naval air force bombers came close enough to US Navy ships in the Black Sea that their wake staggered people on the fantail of the ships who were filming them. And yes, on occasion other countries do the same in seas they consider their backyard.


The basic rule for getting close to another aircraft or vessel is never less than 500ft, laterally or vertically.

So when you see film of fighters intercepting eg. Tu95 Bears, or aircraft overflying ships, or ships shadowing other ships (think Russian "trawlers" shadowing RN/USN fleets), they are always 500ft away.


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