U.S. forces are on heightened alert after a game of aerial chicken
turned deadly over the South China Sea.
A U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries II spy plane was forced to land inside China on Sunday
after colliding with a People's Liberation Army Air Force jet
fighter 62 miles southeast of Hainan Island.
According to Chinese sources, a PLAAF J-8 fighter was lost in
the bumping incident and its pilot has not been recovered. The
incident set off a firestorm of criticism
aimed at both Beijing and the Bush administration.
One source was more than critical of the lack of military cover
given to the slow-flying EP-3 four-engine spy plane.
"This aircraft is referred to as a 'high-value asset,' " stated a
current U.S. military fighter pilot. "I escorted them in the
gulf during operation Desert Shield."
"That there wasn't enough advance warning that there were
Chinese fighters airborne and in a position to intercept this
aircraft sounds a lot like the recent USS Kitty Hawk incident
where the aircraft carrier was overflown by Russian
fighter-bombers," stated the U.S. military pilot.
"The pilot should have put this airplane in the drink," he
concluded in disgust.
The capture of the EP-3 Aries spy plane is considered a major
victory for the Chinese Army "2nd Branch" of the PLA signals
division. In addition, several of the 24 crew members in Chinese
custody are described as electronics specialists serving with
the elite National Security Agency, or NSA.
"This is a serious incident," stated Chalmers Johnson, president
of the Japanese Policy Research Institute. "The thing that
struck me the most was that this flight originated from Kadena
"I doubt we will ever get the plane back, and if we do it will be
after the Chinese have taken it apart piece by piece," said
"This is very serious," agreed Larry Wortzel, director of the
Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Institute, in an interview
from Seoul, South Korea.
"The U.S. has conducted such routine reconnaissance flights for
years. This is nothing like [Francis Gary] Powers. He was over
Soviet airspace. This was in international airspace. The PRC
has objected to these flights for years and flown close."
"The [Navy] aircraft has a great deal of very sensitive
intelligence gear," noted Wortzel.
The U.S. Navy EP-3 Aries aircraft captured by China is reported
to be part of the National Security Agency "Echelon" system.
Each Aries aircraft is so expensive that only 12 such planes are
in the entire U.S. Navy inventory.
Aries aircraft are equipped with giant onboard computers to sort
and retransmit the data directly via secure link to NSA
headquarters located at Ft. Meade, Md. The highly
modified EP-3 Aries aircraft are also equipped with high-powered
infrared video cameras to photograph various targets.
Each Aries is designed to provide fleet and theater commanders
worldwide with near-real-time tactical-signals intelligence.
The Aries is packed with sensitive receivers and high-gain dish
antennas. The captured EP-3 reportedly was on a mission to
obtain a wide range of electronic emissions from deep inside
The normal crew complement is 24: seven officers and 17 enlisted
aircrew consists of three pilots, one navigator, three tactical
evaluators, and one flight engineer. The remainder of the crew
is composed of equipment operators, technicians and mechanics.
The Navy Aries aircraft are also frequently repainted with other
squadron insignia, including tail numbers and cartoonlike
characters, in an effort to disguise them as the more typical
P-3 Orion anti-submarine aircraft. The covert paint jobs are
performed at an NSA contract facility located outside Dallas-Fort Worth.
According to one Asia expert, the electronic intelligence
flights off the Chinese coast are part of a deliberate effort by
the Bush administration to draw a sharp Chinese response.
"The U.S. Navy flying spy missions 62 miles from the Chinese
coast is simply insane," stated Japan Policy Research Institute
president Chalmers Johnson.
"We bait the Chinese with these spy flights, we needle the North
Koreans over military movements inside their own borders and
antagonize the Russians over an American turned spy while
tunneling under their embassy in D.C. This kind of cowboy
diplomacy is a form of Clint Eastwood machismo."
"It all adds up to that we are just now starting to pay for the
election of George W. Bush," concluded Johnson. "The Chinese
were completely justified in taking this action. The Bush
administration is deliberately going out of its way to
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