Inside the Ring: China targeting U.S. spy flights amid escalating tensions

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China’s air force planned to impose the controversial air defense identification zone several years ago to assert territorial control and counter U.S. aerial spying, defense officials tell Inside the Ring.

Internal Chinese military writings reveal that a nationwide air defense zone was under consideration as early as 2008 as part of China’s efforts to assert control over large areas of international waters in northeast Asia, the East China Sea and South China Sea.

One Chinese air force report said the main goal of the zone is to assert territorial claims and drive U.S. and Japanese reconnaissance aircraft away from the coast as part of an effort to protect military secrets.

The air force internal research paper from October 2008 stated that China needed a “national” air defense zone to secure China’s “territorial seas” to counter “constant, fierce contention” of the surrounding seas.

Another key element of the zone is to monitor and “drive away” U.S. reconnaissance aircraft that conduct frequent “spying and disruptive activities” along the coast.

Asked Wednesday what was behind the air defense zone, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said, “I don’t know.”

In 2001, a Chinese J-8 fighter crashed into a U.S. EP-3 surveillance aircraft flying some 70 miles off the Chinese coast, setting off a crisis for the new administration of President George W. Bush.

China held the 24-member EP-3 crew captive after it made an emergency landing on Hainan Island. The military then forced the Pentagon to cut up the aircraft for removal after closely examining the remaining spy gear on board.

Chinese air force efforts to conduct patrols and intercepts in the contested air defense zone extending nearly 100 miles into the Pacific are being watched closely by U.S. military intelligence monitors.

According to the officials, in recent days the Chinese air force dispatched Su-30 and J-11 fighters as well as KJ-2000 airborne warning aircraft into the zone, which overlaps Japan’s air zone over the disputed Senkaku Islands.

The U.S. military has concluded that those aircraft are capable of detecting and intercepting aircraft that fly into the zone.

Numerous U.S. and Japanese fighters, reconnaissance, maritime patrol and early warning aircraft have flown into the zone since Nov. 23 without giving prior notification as China is demanding, officials said. Two B-52 strategic bombers also flew through the zone in a show of force.

Chinese military aircraft are not expected to conduct round-the-clock operations to enforce the zone, the officials said. Instead the Chinese are expected to rely on airborne and ground-based radar to monitor the area. Interceptor jets from air bases along the coast will be tasked to scramble for some intercepts.

HIGH SPYING

China’s imposition of the contested air defense zone over the East China Sea has not halted U.S. military surveillance flights, including regular flights by EP-3 high-tech spying aircraft, defense officials said.

The flights are carried out from bases in Japan and other parts of the region, and they typically fly over international air space along China’s coasts.

The aircraft gather valuable signals intelligence on Chinese military and civilian communications as far inland as Beijing and other large cities, and especially among eastern regional military groups.

China imposed the zone Nov. 23 without warning or consultation and is now demanding that all such flights be logged in advance with Chinese authorities.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Wednesday that the air zone is destabilizing the region because China failed to consult other nations before setting it up.

The Pentagon has said it does not recognize the zone that officials said is an attempt by Beijing to upset the fragile status quo in the region.

To make its point, when Pacific Command ordered the two B-52 bombers based at Guam to fly through the zone recently, it took the Chinese air force by surprise because no interceptors were sent up to follow the aircraft — a sign that the Chinese military is ill-prepared to enforce its new air zone.

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, confirmed that U.S. military flights are continuing.

“I am glad to see that China’s blatantly aggressive actions aren’t affecting how the U.S. military conducts operations in the region, and I’m pleased to hear that U.S. military flight operations are continuing as planned,” Mr. McKeon said.

CHINA’S DEATH STAR

A report from China is raising new concerns that the launch of its first unmanned lunar landing probe this week is part of a larger military space program to eventually deploy missiles on the moon, turning it into a Star Wars-like Death Star used for hitting targets on Earth. The moon missile bases appear to be a Chinese adaptation of the U.S. military’s development of prompt global strike capability.

The Beijing Times — a tabloid published by the People’s Daily, official newspaper of the Communist Party of China — reported Tuesday that the space launcher guidance techniques can be used to bolster development of China’s large force of missiles.

China’s space program, which is operated by its army, launched the Change-3 lunar probe atop a Long March-3B booster rocket at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan on Monday. The probe has a rover called Yutu, or Jade Rabbit.

The report quoted the designer of the rocket launcher for the moon mission, Jiang Jie, as saying the launch used a “composite guidance” that combined lasers and satellites to direct the rocket to its moon landing, set for Dec. 14. The technology previously had been limited to medium-range missiles and the HQ-9 anti-aircraft interceptor, he said.

The Beijing Times report also quoted Chinese military specialists as saying the advanced space technology for the moon mission likely will be applied to China’s missile programs. Additionally, China plans to set up a missile base on the moon in the future.

The “ultimate goal is to establish a permanent lunar manned base on the moon” by 2050, the report said.

Using that base, China will set up a weapons-testing base, military rocket fuel depots and a “missile launch base against hostile military targets on Earth” that would be free from enemy attacks by the United States, the report said.

That concept sounds similar to the U.S. prompt global strike program, which is seeking very fast delivery vehicles for missiles and bombs that could hit any target on Earth in 30 to 60 minutes or less.

A missile fired from the moon would take much longer to reach a target 239,000 miles away on Earth. A missile traveling at a speed of around 22,000 mph would reach Earth in about 10 hours. However, the low gravity on the moon and vacuum of space would make takeoffs easier, rocket boosters more fuel efficient and guidance easier.

China is developing numerous long-range missile systems, including anti-satellite missiles, according to U.S. government reports. The latest annual report of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission stated that China launched in May what appeared to be a missile as part of a new anti-satellite weapon that can hit high-Earth orbit targets.

Richard Fisher, a military affairs analyst, said the Beijing Times report exposes China’s space program as a dual-use, military-civilian effort that “could very likely feature eventual moon basing of surveillance and kinetic military systems.”

China views its moon program as part of an effort to establish space control of the Earth-moon system,” Mr. Fisher said.

“Until there is utter transparency regarding China’s overall intentions for military activities in space — so at least defenses can be put in place — it is simply suicidal for democratic countries to contribute to China’s space prowess via cooperation in space,” he said. Unlike the United States, where civilian and military space programs are separate, China’s government boasts of the linkage between the two.

“If our NASA director publicly bragged about how he is building a system of military space control, the shock and horror from many commentators would be deafening,” Mr. Fisher said.

Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter @BillGertz.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

About the Author
Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com). He has been with The Times since 1985.

He is the author of six books, four of them national best-sellers. His latest book, “The Failure Factory,” on government bureaucracy and national security, was published in September 2008.

Mr. ...

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