A Navy report says a Chinese F-8 jet pilot was to blame for the midair collision over the South China Sea that nearly killed the crew of a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft two years ago.
The report of an investigation of the incident by the Pacific Fleet judge advocate’s office also states that the crew of the aircraft, which was forced to make an emergency landing at a Chinese military base, was unable to destroy all of the secrets on the electronic-warfare aircraft and that China likely obtained some classified information from it.
The crew members aboard the aircraft struggled to keep the four-engine propeller plane airborne after the April 1, 2001, midair collision.
Naval Security Group intelligence personnel furiously threw classified documents out an aircraft hatch and smashed sensitive electronic equipment with an ax to prevent it from falling into Chinese hands during the minutes after the collision.
After landing at Lingshui airfield, the crew continued to “hand-shred” classified documents, the report said. However, not all the material could be destroyed, it added.
“Compromise by the People’s Republic of China of undestroyed classified material on PR-32 is highly probable and cannot be ruled out,” the report said. PR-32 was the EP-3E plane’s flight number.
The mission included confidential, secret and top-secret documents and magnetic storage media as part of its mission. Even more sensitive “compartmented” material also was on the aircraft.
“The destruction of classified material was accomplished while the aircrew was probably still in shock from the aircraft collision and the subsequent rapid descent of the aircraft and with very little time prior to landing,” the report said.
The report called for better training of emergency destruction procedures to ensure that in any future accidents that material and equipment can be destroyed before falling into enemy hands. The Pentagon released a copy of the report this week after it was released to the trade publication Jane’s Defense Weekly in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
The incident took place near China’s Hainan island when two Chinese F-8 interceptor jets began shadowing the U.S. EP-3E reconnaissance aircraft that was five hours into a reconnaissance flight from a base in Japan.
One of the F-8s made two passes at about 10:00 a.m., coming within five to 10 feet of the EP-3E. The Chinese pilot first saluted on one pass, and then made a pushing hand gesture to the U.S. crew during the second pass.
On the third pass, the pilot flew too rapidly toward the EP-3E and collided with a propeller as he pulled up on his jet. The propeller cut the jet in half at a point where the tail met the fuselage.
The pilot, identified by the Chinese as Wang Wei, lost control of the jet and crashed into the sea. He was presumed dead.
After the collision, the EP-3E began to shake and dove toward the sea and the aircraft commander, Lt. Shane Osborn, ordered the crew to bail out. But after the damaged engine was shut down, the pilot regained control and the crew managed to land at Lingshui airfield.
The Navy report contradicts Chinese government claims that the U.S. aircraft was to blame for causing the incident, which has caused a major disruption of U.S.-China relations.
China’s military detained the crew for 11 days and demanded that the Bush administration apologize for the collision. Eventually, the crew was freed, but China forced the Pentagon to cut up the aircraft and ship it back to the United States in pieces.
The aircraft has since been rebuilt and is back in service.
The crisis took the new administration by surprise as President Bush was still assembling his national security team at the time of the incident. The Pentagon ended normal military exchanges with China’s military as a result
U.S. intelligence officials told The Washington Times in May 2001 that China learned valuable U.S. intelligence-gathering secrets from the plane, including the capability of eavesdropping equipment to identify individual Chinese military officers by the sounds of their voices.
Prior to the compromise of the information, the Chinese did not know that U.S. intelligence could conduct that kind of electronic spying.
China dispatched some 100 intelligence technicians to the Hainan island base to study the aircraft and the recovered classified material, the intelligence officials said.
At one point, the U.S. military considered conducting a bombing raid of the downed EP-3E to prevent the Chinese from learning its secrets, the officials said.
The EP-3E had been outfitted with advanced electronic gear known as the Sensor System Improvement Program that integrated tactical communications, electronic-support measures and a special signal-processing and exploitation system.
It also carried the upgraded version of the Joint Signals Intelligence Avionics Family Block Modernization. The system helps improve the onboard processing of electronic communications and signals intercepted during flight.
Most of what the Chinese recovered were classified intelligence documents.
No disciplinary action was taken against the EP-3E crew, the report stated.