This source added that last week, at the height of the tense, high-stakes standoff between China and the United States over the April 1 collision between an F-8 Chinese fighter and an EP-3E Navy plane, the U.S. Department of Defense had sent another electronic intelligence plane on a mission along the Chinese coast.
According to John Pike, weapons expert for GlobalSecurity.org, an Alexandra, Va., think tank, that plane was not an Aries but either an Air Force Rivet Joint plane or Navy P-3 Orion anti-submarine aircraft.
A Defense Department spokesman refused to confirm the flight. "That's classified information,'' he said.
But Pike said U.S. intelligence officials had told him that an Aires flight was due to be sent soon.
Mike O'Hanlon, Chinese expert at The Brookings Institution, said he had been told that a U.S. intelligence-gathering flight had flown off China's coast last week. He said they were hard to stop.
"These flights are planned a long time in advance," O'Hanlon said. He also said that U.S. officials had told him that Aries flights targeting China were to resume soon.
U.S. intelligence officials told United Press International that a multibillion-dollar U.S. intelligence operation was flying the same number of intelligence-gathering planes as were flown "at the height of the Cold War," in the words of one analyst.
"We have the obligation to maintain our vigilance," another administration official said. He would not comment on further Aires flights. But Richard Fisher, a senior fellow at Jamestown Foundation, a defense think tank, said: "These flights should resume to make the point that this is international airspace, and we have the right to conduct surveillance that is deemed vital to our national security."
He added that the flights were necessary "for the protection of American servicemen."
Rivet Joint missions, using gray-and-white EP-135 electronic signals intelligence aircraft, have long been used in Europe, the Middle East and the Far East to collect intelligence on communications. Formerly, they were used to gather information on Soviet air defense radars, and have been reassigned to Chinese air defense and other systems, said sources.
Rivet Joint aircraft have rounded black noses and can stay in the air for 10 hours before refueling. They have standing mission requirement focusing on collection of information about Chinese submarine and other ship activity, air defenses, communications and short-range tactical signals intelligence.
At the height of the Cold War, Rivet Joint flew about 70 missions a month in the Far East and Western Europe, one U.S. official told UPI.
The number of missions being flown today by Aries, Rivet Joint or P-3 Orion aircraft targeting China number above 200 a year, U.S. sources said.
"This is a multibillion-dollar effort," said a U.S. defense official.
Rivet Joint flights are run by the Defense Department, which processes requests for flights from regional commanders, forwards them to the Defense Intelligence Agency, which, in turn, gives them to the Central Intelligence Agency's SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) committee.
The forward base for Rivet Joint flights is Offut Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska with forward operating bases in Kadena, Okinawa, Eilson Air Force Base in Alaska, and Hellenikon Air Force Base near Athens, sources said.
In the 1980s, the Strategic Air Command had 18 Rivet Joint planes in Latin America that were used to support government troops in El Salvador and U.S.-backed Contra rebels, flying out of Howard Air Force Base in Panama. A portion of these have been reassigned.
U.S. officials said that the monitoring equipment aboard the Rivet Joint planes is operated by the Air Force's Electronic Security Command (ESC), which relays the data in real time to National Security Agency headquarters. ESC also operates a number of ground listening stations around the world.
The P-Orion is an anti-submarine warfare aircraft equipped with the latest underwater tracking devices and capable of tracing back any transmission or emissions to the original sender ship. It would play a critical role in wartime by revealing the whereabouts of hostile subs and destroying the surprise on which they depend, U.S. sources said.
According to Pike, the reaction of the Chinese military to Rivet Joint flights is "less intense" than its reactions to Aries flights although the electronic suites of both are "almost equivalent."
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