- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2001

The Navy's EP-3E Aries II carries eavesdropping devices so sophisticated the 24-member crew was under orders to destroy equipment and documents once the spy plane was headed for an emergency landing inside hostile territory.
"If the crew of the EP-3 did what they were supposed to, there should be no equipment or data for the Chinese to exploit," said a naval aviator familiar with the surveillance plane's operations. "There would have been a destruction plan for just this type of incident, in which each crew member would be responsible for the destruction and disabling of certain equipment or publications."
"These guys had to fly over 50 miles to Hainan Island to make an emergency landing, so they should have had plenty of time to do what they had to do," the aviator said.
Another naval source said the plane is equipped with shredders and that one of the first items destroyed before landing in China would have been code-encryption software disks.
"I hope they had time," this source said, referring to the time it took the four-engine plane, its wing and one engine damaged, to limp 70 miles to shore.
Asked if the crew destroyed onboard computers and electronics, Cmdr. Rex Totty, a Pacific Command spokesman, said, "It is a matter of policy. We do not discuss the disposition of classified equipment or material."
The EP-3E, driven by four turboprop engines, routinely patrols over the South China Sea unescorted. Its radome-protected array of antennas soaks up radio and telephone conversations as well as radar, microwave and infrared emissions.
It is routine for Chinese fighters to scramble and watch the EP-3E as it lumbers well outside China's internationally recognized 12-mile airspace. What is new, say naval aviators, is how close the Jian-8 fighters came to the Boeing-737-size airplane.
The collision sent one fighter crashing into the sea Saturday night and forced the damaged EP-3E to execute a rush landing at the Lingshui naval air base.
"These guys usually go without [fighter] support because we've never had a reason to believe the 'Chi-Coms' would do anything other than rattle their sabers. It's just a game of cat and mouse," said the naval aviator, who asked not to be named. "I'm sure this guy did not mean to hit our EP-3E and had he not, this never would have happened."
He added, "Let there be no doubt the guys in that EP-3 knew when, where, how many, and who was launching from China as it happened. Their own sensors would be able to tell them what was happening probably better than any search radars from other aircraft or ships."
The Navy operates 12 land-based EP-3Es, whose 105-foot-long airframe is the same as the Lockheed-Martin-built P-3C Orion submarine hunter that patrols the oceans for hours at a time.
States a Navy publication: "With sensitive receivers and high-gain dish antennas, the EP-3E exploits a wide range of electronic emissions from deep within hostile territory."
Retired Rear Adm. Phillip D. Smith, a career P-3 pilot, said the surveillance plan can travel 3,000 miles and stay airborne 12 hours per mission.
"The Navy, like any military organization, collects as much intelligence as it can from possible threats," the former two-star admiral said. "The EP-3 is extremely valuable. It is the only Navy airplane that today has the intelligence collection mission."
Officers in the naval aviation community yesterday were debating two issues: Should U.S. Pacific Command, which oversees American forces in the region, have dispatched fighter escorts to protect the EC-3? And should the American crew have bailed out instead of delivering the valuable military asset into the hands of China's People's Liberation Army?
A Marine Corps pilot, citing reports that China has been more aggressive in shadowing EP-3Es, said protection was in order.
"This should have prompted [Pacific Command] to take steps to prevent what happened," the pilot said.
But Cmdr. Totty, the command spokesman, disagreed.
"I don't understand why an escort would be necessary," Cmdr. Totty said. "We have a history of conducting these missions that go back many years … We're not at all convinced this was a hostile event. We are treating it like an accident and, until there is evidence to show otherwise, we are treating it as an accident."
Adm. Smith agreed.
"He was doing a regular peacetime mission in international airspace and it would be a waste of taxpayer money to put fighters on such an airplane unless it was a time of high tension."
The former admiral also said there is a debate in the naval community on whether the crew should have ditched the plane and bailed out. But he said such a decision could have meant certain death for the crew since survival in cold seas would be measured in hours, not days.
"I have some friends who have faulted them," Adm. Smith said. "I would have to know a lot more details before making a judgment like that."

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