- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2001

The crew of the disabled EP-3E had only a frantic 20 minutes to destroy high-tech eavesdropping equipment before the plane staggered into an airstrip where Chinese soldiers quickly seized the intelligence "crown jewel," Pentagon officials say.
The sources said that in the last desperate radio communications between the Navy aircraft and U.S. Pacific Command, the pilot said the crew had begun destroying vital data such as code-breaking devices and computer software.
But there was no subsequent report as to whether the technicians had time to successfully carry out the equipment carnage.
"We don't know," Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, said three days after the EP-3E Aries II collided with a Chinese jet fighter over the South China Sea and made an emergency landing on China's Hainan Island on Sunday morning, local time.
"We know it was a limited amount of time between the collision and actually the plane touching down," Adm. Quigley said. "How much of the emergency destruct process had been carried out by the time they landed, we just don't know."
Its nose, a wing and one engine sheared by the collision with an F-8 fighter, the EP-3E sent out a "mayday" on an international frequency, then headed for the nearest airfield the Lingshui naval air base.
Once on the ground, armed Chinese soldiers quickly commandeered the plane, removed the crew and ushered technicians on board to inspect what was left of the plane's exotic electronics suite, Pentagon officials said.
Retired Adm. Joseph Prueher, the U.S. ambassador to China, told NBC, "We suppose that the Chinese certainly boarded the aircraft and that they have had access to the aircraft for about 60 hours now. And in that case, they would have access to the information. And then the degree of exploitation they might have participated in is something we don't know yet."
The problem for the Pentagon is that the Aries II is stocked with some of the latest advances in electronic means to intercept a variety of communication lines and data links.
Its radome-covered antennas can listen in on radio and telephone communication and steal data from ground radars and missile tests.
Couple that with China's proven ability to "reverse engineer" systems and then build their own, and the incident could provide the communist regime with an intelligence bonanza.
"If they can get their hands on some of the hardware, they may be able to duplicate some of it," said a Navy aviator who asked not to be named. "Witness what they've done in missile and nuclear warhead technology since the Los Alamos giveaway."
This is a reference to a congressional committee's finding that China stole nuclear weapons designs from U.S. laboratories and duplicated production of an advanced warhead.
"The EP-3 is a wealth of the most sophisticated electronic surveillance measures equipment in the world," the Navy source said. "The other area that could be severely damaged is encryption codes and encoding/decoding equipment. If that is compromised, we have to start all over."
Adm. Quigley acknowledged the Pentagon is worried.
"The complexities and the sophistication of this plane are the electronic equipment that it carries," he said. "It is, indeed, sensitive."
He said the plane has "capabilities and limitations that we would not like to share with others. So yes, we're concerned. And we're concerned more than anything else about the crew and wanting to get them back."
Pentagon officials privately expressed doubt that the People's Liberation Army will ever return a "crown jewel" intelligence coup such as the EP-3E.
The officials said the plane's crew would use a multitude of methods from shredding documents to literally smashing equipment with a hammer to make the equipment useless to the Chinese.
"If it's electronic equipment, you disable it in a variety of ways, whether it's physical destruction … whether it's the shredding of classified papers and things of that sort," Adm. Quigley said. "You just say what is it about this equipment that would provide information to a foreign government that I don't want to share."
Sunday's collision culminated a month of increasingly aggressive intercepts by Chinese fighters scrambling to monitor the Navy's only airborne intelligence collection platform.
The same EP-3E had flown a series of missions from the U.S. Kadena air base on Okinawa, Japan. Each time, the pilots reported, Chinese supersonic jet fighters came closer and closer to the lumbering, four-engine turboprop.
"Lately, we saw some unsafe flying practices coming within 30 feet," said the Pentagon official. "This was more like flying cowboys… . If anything goes wrong, that's not a lot of room for correction."
This official said analysts are unsure whether the Chinese aggressiveness was by design or simply a lack of proper training on how to intercept and monitor a foreign military aircraft.
The Pentagon maintained that the EP-3E flew at a "straight and level" course and faulted the two fighters for flying erratically and too close. The fighter that collided with the U.S. plane crashed into the South China Sea. The pilot is presumed dead.

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