The collision of a US spy plane and a Chinese fighter over the South China Sea involves some of the most important military work in the world today. And depending on the outcome, it could result in a serious loss of US intelligence-gathering capability at a time when the relative balance of power in Asia is shifting.
The route that the US Navy EP-3E electronic surveillance aircraft flew last Sunday was a relative milk run, a routine though highly important mission in which the US learns as much as it can about threats it might face in the region.
"One of the things that's very important, and becomes increasingly important in the Information Age, is to know the kinds of signals, how modern the equipment, and what methodologies are being used by a potential opponent," says Daniel Smith, a retired US Army colonel and chief of research at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "Not only the mundane things like frequencies, but how they are being used - looking for patterns and also anomalies to patterns."
"Should we get into some kind of hostile standoff in the future, this would help us know where to look and what to be looking for," says Colonel Smith.
After Sunday's collision, the 24-member crew had just minutes before making an emergency landing on China's Hainan Island to destroy sensitive information. This would include codes for encryption systems and the records of electronic intelligence that had been collected during the flight - both of which would be highly useful to a potential adversary.
The 19 "electronic warfare" technicians, working shoulder-to-shoulder at terminals back in the windowless fuselage, practice such destruction techniques under far less stressful circumstances. The first few minutes last Sunday morning - over water, hundreds of miles from the plane's base on Okinawa, and in the presence of armed and hostile jets - were undoubtedly palm-sweaty tense as the pilots struggled to regain control of the plummeting four-engine plane.
Even if the crew was able to destroy all the computer codes and electronic records of the flight, US military and intelligence services "will probably treat as compromised much of the equipment just to be on the safe side," says Smith, a former military intelligence officer. Using reverse engineering, for example, Chinese technicians will be able to gather important data on the receivers, radars, and other highly classified equipment used in gathering the "SIGINT" (signals intelligence) and "ELINT" (electronic intelligence). This could be the difference between victory and loss in time of war.
"[The Chinese] would certainly be able to have their electronic-warfare people look at the antennas and signals-processing hardware," says longtime military and intelligence analyst John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-based consulting organization. When it gets the opportunity, the US does this as well. In one well-documented case, US experts completely took apart an advanced Soviet MiG-25 fighter when its pilot defected to Japan in 1976, returning the dismantled aircraft 67 days later.
China's military capabilities have drawn increasing US scrutiny over the past year or so, in particular since Beijing has been contracting with Moscow to acquire advanced Russian weaponry. This has included two new Sovremenny-class destroyers armed with missiles, as well as Su-30 fighter planes. China also wants to buy the even more advanced Su-37 Russian-built fighter. It may have been this kind of weaponry that the downed EP-3 was looking for.
As the US watches these developments, it must rethink its force deployment in the region as well as the kinds of weapons it might provide to Taiwan.
The EP-3E ARIES (Airborne Reconnaissance Integrated Electronics System) aircraft started life more than 30 years ago as the turbo-prop powered P-3 Orion submarine-detection plane. Over the years, sensitive receivers, high-gain dish antennas, computers, noise deception jammers, identification friend or foe (IFF) deception sets, and other state-of-the-art equipment have been added.
With its five fuel tanks, it has a range of 3,000 miles and can stay aloft for 12 hours. The US has just 11 such aircraft, so the loss of one can significantly affect its military capabilities.
The Navy has two Fleet Electronic Reconnaissance Squadrons flying the EP-3E, one home-ported on Whidbey Island in Washington State (with a detachment on Okinawa) and the other in Rota, Spain (with a detachment on Crete). These units provided combat reconnaissance and intelligence support during the Gulf War and during NATO operations in the former Yugoslavia.
One bit of irony in the current US-China drama: The squadron patch worn by one EP-3E aircrew includes a taunting red star and "Finback bait" on it. "Finback" is the NATO designation for the Chinese Jianjiji F-8 fighter that ran into the EP-3E.
Such patrol planes have often flown in harm's way, even though they are relatively lumbering (another flight crew patch shows a pig with wings). One was shot down during the Vietnam War.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor