- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2001

The Bush administration, without fanfare, resumed military surveillance flights off the China coast yesterday but avoided the militarized southern region where a Navy spy plane was struck by a Chinese fighter and forced to land on Hainan island.
An Air Force RC-135 "Rivet Joint" aircraft flew a solo reconnaissance route off northeastern China, the first such patrol since the Navy EP-3E and a Chinese fighter collided in flight April 1, creating a tense international standoff. The American plane managed an emergency landing on the Chinese island, and its crew of 24 was detained by Chinese authorities for 12 days.
China, which released the crew only after the United States expressed regret for the loss of the Chinese fighter pilot, has demanded that the Pentagon stop all reconnaissance flights near the mainland.
Yesterdays mission violated that demand, but the Bush administration kept the milestone low key. It was not announced by the Pentagon, and the White House declined to discuss it. The approach reflected the sensitive nature of gradually resuming intelligence flights without inflaming relations with Beijing.
Military planners kept the RC-135 in the less-contentious northeastern region. The ultimate target for such intelligence gathering is the South China Sea, where the Chinese launch ships, including submarines, and have positioned hundreds of short-range ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan.
"They try out their toys down there," said a retired Air Force general. "Thats the really sensitive area."
The four-engine jet which like the EP-3E is equipped with powerful eavesdropping antennae was unarmed and flew unescorted from Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, Japan. The mission ended about 8 a.m. Eastern time (8 p.m. local time). China did not dispatch fighters to intercept the RC-135, a Pentagon official said.
The Pentagon is considering sending fighter escorts when flights resume farther south, where Chinese pilots have a history of maneuvering jet fighters dangerously close to the slow-moving U.S. reconnaissance planes. The tactic proved fatal April 1, when a fighter flew into the EP-3Es propeller and then broke up, sending the Chinese pilot and wreckage into the ocean.
The Peoples Liberation Army is still holding the EP-3E, even after their technicians stripped the aircraft of any valuable intelligence information. A U.S. Lockheed Martin crew spent two days evaluating the aircraft last week and tentatively reported the plane could be flown off the island after extensive repairs. China has not yet agreed to release the plane.
"Im sure well get the plane back," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said on CBS "Face the Nation" on Sunday. "Its an $80 million aircraft, and its ours. … They wouldnt have allowed an inspection team to go in there if they didnt plan to return the airplane."
At the White House, spokesman Ari Fleischer reasserted the U.S. right to conduct such patrols.
"Right from the beginning it has always been the position of the United States that it is our prerogative and right to fly over international airspace to preserve the peace by flying reconnaissance missions, but Im not going to entertain any questions about any specific missions."
An intelligence official said the United States has had no EP-3E surveillance flights since the April 1 collision. The lack of flights has limited the ability of Pentagon intelligence agencies to learn more about Chinese military operations, the key target of the electronic interception of radio and telephone communication.
The EP-3E is considered a "tactical" collection system that is targeted primarily at military communications.
The RC-135 is a "strategic" intelligence collector. Strategic intelligence includes information on nuclear weapons, such as tests and new deployments. The hog-nose, high-altitude RC-135 is a militarized version of the Boeing 707.
Assigned to the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., Rivet Joint is stuffed with antennae arrays. It provides "vital real-time battle management information to mission planners, commanders and warfighters," Air Force documents say.
* Bill Gertz contributed to this report.

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