- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2001

As any fighter pilot would tell you, including the one now occupying the Oval Office, the collision between a Navy EP-3 "Aries" surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter several days ago was no accident. The damage to the Navy plane shown in news photos could only have been caused by a hot-dogging maneuver called a "hot nose."
If you're shadowing another aircraft, and pull up under him, he can't see you. If you suddenly accelerate ahead of him, and then go to full power and go straight up, you flash past his nose. If it's done right, the other pilot only sees you flashing straight up through his flight path, and you scare the liver out of him. If you do it wrong, you'll hit his nose and maybe one of his wings, or destroy both aircraft. This is the only way the EP-3 could have had its nose sheared off and its propellers damaged without other parts of the aircraft being touched.
Every fighter pilot has been on both the giving and receiving ends of a "hot nose." It's what you do when you're hot-dogging, and get carried away. The Chinese fighters clearly had orders to harass our plane, and maybe to force it to land. One of their pilots got it wrong, and collided with our intelligence aircraft. The Chinese pilot paid for his mistake with his life. But to say, like the Chinese are saying, that we had any culpability for it is to deny reality.
The Navy EP-3 "Aries" is a four-engine prop job derived from the old Lockheed P-3 Orion sub-chaser. The Aries, however, is chock-full of electronic goodies that make it a formidable listening platform. And that's what it was doing, some 100 or so miles off Hainan Island, one of China's possessions at the southern end of the South China Sea.
The Chinese say that the U.S. aircraft intentionally veered into and struck a Chinese fighter which was flying near it. Now, Colin Powell and others are labeling it an accident, which is only true in part.
The Chinese are interested in all the fancy electronic gear on the EP-3 which they are apparently taking apart piece by piece. Even if the crew of eight officers and 16 enlisted men and women did their jobs and all the Chinese soldiers found when they stormed the plane were some very interesting burned circuit boards, there are other parts of the aircraft, like the antenna arrays, from which they can learn a lot. This is a very costly loss.

Early in every presidency, some spot in the world will flare, some tin pot dictator or some major adversary will contrive to test the new president to see what he's made of. The results of this test determine whether the president can succeed as a world leader or not.

It's now George Bush's turn and everybody from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Saddam is watching. Just about three weeks after he was visited by their vice premier, Mr. Bush's gut check comes courtesy of the Chinese. Their saber-rattling exercise began even before that with a huge announced increase in their "defense" budget, and warnings about the arms sales to Taiwan Mr. Bush is considering. This all culminated - or so we thought - with the harsh message that China would regard our sale to Taiwan of Aegis-equipped destroyers pretty much as an act of war. Now the Chinese have chosen to capture an American EP-3 recon plane and its crew of 24.
Mr. Bush faces the main challenge: How to get our people back. As commander in chief, his first duty is to preserve the nation's interests. Second only to that is the duty to get our guys and gals back and do it now.
The Chinese, like all bullies, will back down in the face of the right force. It's Mr. Bush's job to push them hard enough to get the people back and not get us into a real shooting war if possible. The Chinese leaders are people who rose to prominence by adhering to Chairman Mao's "Little Red Book." It says, in one memorable passage, that all power grows out of the barrel of a gun. That's the only language these people understand.
So how do we get the people back without dropping a few bombs on these guys just to get their attention?
The first way is to send a clear message. Demand our people be returned with their aircraft intact, and right now. Mr. Bush flubbed the first part, saying that it was imperative we be permitted to talk to our people. Next, we sent three destroyers into the area as a show of force. Three destroyers within air attack range of China isn't a show of force. Those three ships wouldn't be more than a few minutes' target practice. The time to get serious is right now.
The second stage is to put on the diplomatic heat quickly. It should begin today. U.N. resolutions condemning China should be proposed, even though they will not pass. Pull our ambassador back from Beijing. Cease all cooperation with them. Start pushing NATO alert buttons. No need to start shooting yet, but the message again must be clear.
Part of this is to show we won't be bullied. This whole exercise is to see if Mr. Bush has the guts to anger the Chinese by selling Taiwan the arms it wants and needs. Mr. Bush should announce right now that the sales will go through.
Third, and hardest, is the last option. Those of us who watched the news reports of the crew of the USS Pueblo endure North Korean torture will never forget it. The famous propaganda photo of the "well-treated" crew giving the middle digit salute to the North Korean camera was a sure sign that the warrior spirit was alive in those guys. We can only hope the crew of the EP-3 doesn't suffer the same fate.
In a few more days, if the Chinese won't give our people back, we need to go get them ourselves. Whatever it takes, and whatever we need to do, America cannot abandon those 24 young people who were putting it all on the line for us. The EP-3 can be destroyed where it stands, and the Chinese are welcome to the rubble. The people are gathered together on an island. We have people who know how to go in and get them.
Mr. Bush needs to do these things for those 24 young people, for the rest of us, and for himself. His presidency can be the lever to restore America's role as a world leader, or we can continue to shrink in our influence and power. All of our adversaries are watching. This is one test he'd better not fail.

Jed Babbin is a former deputy undersecretary of defense in the prior Bush administration.

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