The Navy EP-3 surveillance aircraft collided Sunday with a Chinese fighter jet sent to intercept it. The U.S. plane made an emergency landing at a Chinese military base on Hainan Island in the South China Sea, and American officials have so far been denied access to the plane and its crew, provoking a tense diplomatic standoff between Beijing and Washington.
In part the war of words that has ensued is attributable to the lack of any ground rules governing interaction between Chinese military forces and U.S. planes and ships trying to spy on them, according to a U.S. naval source. Guidelines were worked out, during the Cold War, between the U.S. and Russia, but never with China, the source said.
The EP-3 Aries II aircraft has four propeller engines, and a low wing with a span of nearly 100 feet. It is capable of flying for more than 12 hours at a time with a range of 3,000 nautical miles.
The Navy owns only about a dozen of the aircraft. Each one carries a huge collection of highly classified sensitive radio receivers and high-gain dish antennae that can detect, record and analyze electronic emissions from deep within enemy territory, according to the Navy.
According to one U.S. official, the Navy EP-3 II Aries flight Sunday was part of a National Security Agency program, missions that the NSA operates in conjunction with all three branches of the U.S. armed forces. The Navy's component service is known as the Naval Security Group, and its primary mission in the Far East is to monitor Chinese naval activity.
According to U.S. intelligence experts, this means gathering information on the type and number of ships and the patterns of operation, logistical organization and resupply. In a war, the aircraft provides data for commanders to make targeting decisions and avoid enemy defenses. Its unique feature is the capability to offer near real-time intelligence by beaming its data directly to U.S. ships and planes while in flight.
Intelligence experts say the plane would also collect data on how Chinese naval units operate in coordination with shore-based aircraft and ballistic missile submarines. A key goal, they say, is to watch for activation of special command links on which ships talk to commanders on special circuits or frequencies.
But another part of the EP-3's mission has been to probe Chinese air defenses – to get data facilities like radar and the fire control systems that drive surface-to-air missile and air interceptor systems, they said. These facilities reveal themselves when they start to track potential targets.
"When the Chinese spot one of our planes, they light up, and we can watch them watching us. That's what it's about," said one U.S. government official.
The EP-3s fly a fixed track, or route, in order to report on the signals and emissions coming from the many radars and guidance systems along the Chinese coast. Radars, whether linked to an anti-aircraft system or to a ground station, produce distinctive electronic impulses, or signatures. A quick glance from the crew of the EP-3 or an NSA analyst at a relay station can tell whether the radar is aboard a Chinese aircraft or coming from a surface-to-air missile battery, intelligence experts said.
In wartime, data about the location of these facilities help U.S. weapons systems, ships and planes to penetrate air defenses and hit targets.
In the days of the Cold War, the United States would deliberately violate Soviet airspace to provoke the Soviets to turn on their air defense radars, enabling NSA experts to collect data, according to a U.S. Navy official.
After the Soviets rammed a U.S. spy ship, the USS Caron, in the Black Sea in 1988, the official said a set of ground rules were drawn up between military officials of both nations.
"We got together and said: 'Look, this is an dangerous game. Aren't there some rules we can establish that will keep the lives of crews and officers from being in danger?' " the official told UPI.
The agreement even covered interaction in the seas and airspace around North Korea. One intelligence official told UPI that both the Russians and the Chinese intercept reconnaissance planes in international airspace on nearly every flight to demonstrate that they know the aircraft is there.
But there is no agreement in place with the Chinese military, and China's interception of EP-3 flights has steadily become more aggressive, according to U.S. military sources.
Being shadowed by an armed fighter jet is a hair-raising experience for the crew of an unarmed, relatively lumbering spy plane like the EP-3.
"It's like looking at a thug with a gun pointed at you with the hammer cocked. It gets your attention," said the intelligence official.
But even as the EP-3 was being intercepted, intelligence experts said, it was probably collecting valuable information. The aircraft routinely records radio traffic, even when it's in code.
"The Chinese interceptors were talking to air-ground air traffic controllers, who were talking to other air bases, and even the fighters in the pursuing unit were talking among themselves – all of which is valuable," a U.S. government official said.
One question circulating among former pilots of spy planes is why the EP-3 pilot landed on Hainan instead of ditching the plane in international waters or using the half hour that elapsed between the collision and the landing to fly somewhere else.
"Let me put it this way: If China was the object of surveillance, why would they elect to land in China?" the official said.
He conceded the pilot would be concerned about the safety of 24 people on board and that attitudes have changed since the "do or die" days of the Cold War, but he argues the EP-3 is a sturdy plane specifically built to withstand emergency sea landings.
"It would be more dangerous than a regular landing, that's for sure, but it's a pretty survivable aircraft to ditch," he said.
The Navy said it had no comment on the pilot's decision until the details are known about the incident, and other sources suggested that the pilot's first concern was probably the safety of the crew.
"I would never second-guess a pilot who had to make a split-second decision on the safety of 24 souls," said a government official who was a crew member on a signal intelligence aircraft for decades.
"The decisions you have to make [are] based on the exigencies of the time. You make a decision. They might be right; they might be wrong. But you almost always err on the side of protecting people. … I will never second-guess a pilot."
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