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Since the Russians blinked, I guess it’s no secret that the US has viewed China as its major potential world adversary, especially with high-tech’s dependence on Taiwanese and Korean manufacturers.

So amid the doom and gloom of the economy, you might’ve missed the reports that the US have gotten themselves into a bit of a quandary.

The big question is: what were they doing?

The plane that the US Navy were flying is not your traditional layman’s view of a spy plane, zooming over the continent at Mach whatever and merrily taking super-high-res snapshots of the Chinese countryside.

The P-3 Orion airframe is actually a turboprop aircraft designed to operate efficiently at VERY low-altitude (50-500 ft.) and perform close-in reconnaissance for tasks like submarine hunting, search-and-rescue, fisheries enforcement, etc.

The US also tends to load up the P-3 with all kinds of wacky electronic equipment for more nefarious missions, as the article below indicates. According to Jane’s and the FAS, the EP-3 is a Signals Intelligence aircraft, which means it carries numerous antennae for collecting and interpreting electronic signals.

Here’s what they were doing:

The easiest way to check out your foe is to make them a little curious about you. Fly in at a low level, close enough to their airspace, and they’re bound to check you out. When you cross a certain threshold, they’ll light up their surface radars, anti-aircraft batteries, and they’ll launch a few fighters and send them up to get up-close and personal.

Each time that happens, you get scanned by radar. By collecting these signals, you can tell a lot about the capabilities of the systems that are scanning you. You can measure signal strengths at various distances, you can measure resolution of the scan, etc. If you measure that against the attributes of known radar systems, you can tell what make & model of radar they’re using.

You can also monitor the behaviour of the various parties involved in tracking you. You can scan and record their radio traffic for later codebreaking on your shiny new SGI ONYX.

Collectively, by interpreting their signals, tactics & procedures, and their capabilities you can develop a very strong sense for how their air defenses work overall.

The EP-3 was almost certainly not working alone. The US Navy destroyers in the region were probably scanning the skies with their active radar systems and listening in to radio traffic as well, and an E-3A (based on a Boeing 707 airframe) AWACS aircraft was probably watching the whole South China Sea. Everything was going according to plan until the P-3 made a hard turn and sent one of China’s fighter hurtling into the South China Sea. Clearly a major operation to probe China’s air defenses and figure out what an attacking force would be up against.

Before the Persian Gulf War erupted with a 60-day bombing campaign, many such missions were flown against Iraq.

In that case, it was determined that their surface anti-aircraft weapons systems were too strong, and so on the first night the US launched a salvo of nearly 400 target drones (unpiloted planes used for missile testing) as the first wave. Behind them flew “Wild Weasel” aircraft, which are mostly F-15Es and F-4F Phantoms using HARM Antiradar missiles. As each Iraqi missile battery fired up its radar and locked onto one of the drones, it was quickly picked up by a Wild Weasel and dispatched with a HARM missile, often before it even had a chance to shoot the drone.

In that case, the Americans knew exactly which versions of the Russian-built radar and targeting systems the Iraqis were using, and they were ready for it long before the attack.

Throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s this dance went on between the Superpowers, too. Russian “Bear” aircraft notoriously roamed the globe provoking Western fighter aircraft who would not-so-politely escort them back toward their homeland. As a result, both built up enormous quantities of data regarding the capabilities of their respective combat radar systems. There were several collisions in those days, too.

In this case, the US are VERY concerned that the equipment on board the plane might be compromised. The aircrew likely had orders to destroy the hardware before landing, but right now the U.S. Navy has to assume that they were not able to.

The reason that China is not allowing the US to communicate with the crew is simple: they do not want the crew to be able to pass a message confirming or denying the success of their sabotage.

If the crew didn’t destroy the equipment, the Americans will get their plane back alright… but you’ll be able to play handball where all of the crew’s workstations once were.



USA and China wrangle over US ‘spyplane’

By Martin Streetly, Editor of Jane’s Electronic Mission Aircraft

US and Chinese officials were today wrangling over the return of a US Navy EP-3 surveillance aircraft that landed at Lingshui military airfield on Hainan island on the morning of Sunday 1 April 2001. The US aircraft diverted to Lingshui following a mid-air collision between itself and one of two Chinese J-8 interceptors that had been launched to shadow it while it conducted a reconnaissance mission over the South China Sea.

The Chinese have reported that the EP-3 veered into one of the fighters, hitting it with its nose and port wing. The US aircraft broadcast a ‘Mayday’ distress call prior to making its emergency landing at Lingshui, while, as of 11.00 GMT on 2 April, no remains of the J-8 fighter had been found. The EP-3’s 24-man crew was reported to have survived the emergency landing.

The US government has been quick to stress the view that the People’s Republic of China has no reason to hold the aircraft’s crew (claiming that the aircraft was operating in international air space at the time of the collision) and that the EP-3 itself is US ‘sovereign territory’. This latter point is of considerable significance, since the longer the aircraft is in China’s hands, the longer its intelligence services will have to examine the extremely sensitive surveillance technology carried by such platforms.

EP-3 or ‘Iron Clad’? While referred to as an EP-3, initial reports concerning this incident do not specifically identify the type of US aircraft involved. Jane’s analysis suggests that it is either a Lockheed Martin EP-3E Aries II signals intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft or a Lockheed Martin ‘Iron Clad’ P-3 covert surveillance platform.

EP-3E Aries II The US Navy’s EP-3E Aries II aircraft is a long-rang, tactical and strategic, SIGINT platform based on the P-3C Orion maritime reconnaissance airframe. Normally flown by a crew of 20, the type is in service with Fleet Electronic Reconnaissance Squadrons VQ-1 and VQ-2 that are home-based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington State, and Naval Station Rota, Spain, respectively. If the aircraft involved in the described incident is an EP-3E, it is most likely to belong to VQ-1 and to have originated from the squadron’s detachment at Misawa Air Base, Japan.

Capable of collecting both radar and communications intelligence, the US Navy currently operates 11 EP-3Es with an additional example planned to replace the aircraft that crashed at Souda Bay on Crete during September 1997. Equipment carried by the EP-3E includes the AN/ALD-9(V) direction-finder, the AN/ALR-76 radar band electronic support system, the AN/ALR-81(V) receiver system and the OE-319 and OE-320 antenna groups. A fuller description of the EP-3E Aries II aircraft can be found in Jane’s Electronic Mission Aircraft.

‘Iron Clad’ P-3 The US Navy’s ‘Utility Patrol’ Squadrons VPU-1 (Brunswick, Maine) and VPU-2 (Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii) operate a small number of ‘Iron Clad’ P-3B and P-3C aircraft that are configured for covert, multi-sensor surveillance. Externally very similar to their maritime reconnaissance cousins, the ‘Iron Clad’ aircraft are reported as being equipped with a sensor suite that, over time, has included SIGINT, acoustic recording and analysis and chemical analysis equipment together with optical and electro-optical cameras. A fuller description of the ‘Iron Clad’ programme can be found in Jane’s Electronic Mission Aircraft.