The U.S. electronic surveillance plane that made an emergency landing in mainland China belongs to an elite highly classified reconnaissance unit that flies missions “from the east coast of Africa to the west coast of the United States,” U.S. officials and experts said Sunday.
“I’m not going to go into the details of the capability of it,” said Admiral Dennis Blair, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, when asked the EP-3 Aries plane that landed on mainland China’s Hainan Island after a collision with one of the two communist Chinese fighter jets that intercepted it.
“It’s a surveillance aircraft,” added Blair. “It was operating on a routine mission in international airspace.”
But other officials and intelligence experts said there is nothing ordinary about the EP-3, which is packed with supersensitive electronic equipment capable of intercepting and analyzing radio and other electronic communications.
One of the experts even suggested the Chinese might have deliberately rammed the EP-3 in mid-air to force its landing and get a chance to examine it from inside.
“It’s a technological marvel that has great collection capabilities,” said Vincent Cannistraro, a CIA veteran, who was director of intelligence programs at the National Security Council during the Reagan administration.
“I think the Chinese did this deliberately to inspect the plane,” he told AFP.
The EP-3, which first became operational in 1969, is based on the P-3 Orion anti-submarine patrol aircraft.
Powered by four turboprop engines, it is capable of flying for more than 12 hours to a distance of more than 3,000 nautical miles (5,555 kilometers).
Each plane carries a crew of seven officers and 17 enlisted men and is loaded with high-tech surveillance equipment.
The flight intercepted by communist China had originated at Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, Japan, which is home to the US Air Force Special Operations Command.
Pacific Command spokesman Lieutenant Commander Sean Kelley confirmed the aircraft was part of the VQ-1 Electronic Warfare Squadron headquartered on Whidbey Island, in Washington State, but frequently operating out Misawa and Kadena Air Bases in Japan.
“It sends planes on routine patrols,” said Kelley.
VQ-1 took part in most major post-World War II conflicts that had the United States as a participant, according to a historical sketch posted on the unit’s Web site.
A Skywarrior reconnaissance plane belonging to the squadron was involved in the ill-fated 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident that led to the U.S. entry into the Vietnam War.
The unit flew nearly 1,400 combat flight hours during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, providing reconnaissance and strike support to US-led allied forces liberating Kuwait from Iraqi invaders.
“Currently VQ-1 provides electronic reconnaissance from the east coast of Africa to the west coast of the United States,” the squadron said in its mission statement.
Although the Pacific command spokesman said it “would be imprudent” for him to describe the inside of the EP-3, U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel said Sunday the plane “has a great amount of very sophisticated intelligence equipment.”
U.S. officials remained mum about what kind of information the Pentagon was trying to obtain in the course of aerial patrols over the South China Sea, but Cannistraro said it was likely related to mainland China’s recent deployment of new CSS-7 missiles at the military bases at Yongan and Xianyou across the strait from Taiwan.
“I suspect that this Chinese military buildup was of primary concern,” said Cannistraro, adding that Beijing, for its part, was obviously concerned by US “ability to monitor their buildup.”
That concern apparently led mainland Chinese military commanders to step up their intercepts of U.S. planes along its coast over the past two months, according to U.S. officials.
“I must tell you that the intercepts … have become more aggressive to the point we felt they were endangering the safety of Chinese and American aircraft,” Blair acknowledged.
Whatever may be on board the plane, several U.S. senators found it serious enough to warn Beijing Sunday that an attempt study the equipment could have serious consequences for PRC-U.S. relations.
“The airplane should not be inspected or entered by any Chinese authorities because of the nature of the equipment on board,” John McCain, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told NBC television.
“If there is some kind of violation here of the process of our privacy, of our right to have that information confidential, it could be a problem,” said Senator Russell Feingold, appearing on CNN’s “Late Edition” program.