Forced down spy plane expected back in service by end of year

Monday, April 8, 2002

MARIETTA, Ga. -- A year after a collision with a fighter jet forced it to make an emergency landing in China, a U.S spy plane that was picked over and cut apart is being put back together and could be back in the air next month.

The Navy EP-3 electronic surveillance plane is undergoing repairs at Lockheed-Martin in Marietta.

That work should be completed in May, when the plane is to be flown to a Raytheon Co. plant at Waco, Texas, for electronic updates, Navy spokesman Bob Coble said.

After that, the four-engine plane is scheduled to return to Navy service by the end of the year.

"The inventory of EP-3 aircraft is 11, so it's not like there's tons and tons of these things around," Coble said. "It's a surveillance and reconnaissance airplane, and we've got lots of missions for that kind of airplane."

The plane was flying over the South China Sea on April 1, 2001, when it collided with a Chinese fighter. The EP-3, with a crew of 24, made an emergency landing on China's Hainan island, where the crew members were detained for 11 days. The Chinese pilot was lost.

Each side blamed the other for the collision. China accused the U.S. plane of violating international law by landing without permission, and it refused to let American technicians fix it and fly it out. The U.S. crew destroyed much of the plane's sensitive eavesdropping devices, but China is believed to have removed some equipment when it seized the plane and may have gleaned some useful information.

Three months after the crash, the U.S. spy plane was released to the United States and, with its wings and tail cut off, loaded onto a cargo plane for the flight home.

The incident further strained relations between China and the United States which were already tense over issues including Taiwan, arms proliferation and human rights. China also has demanded $1 million to compensate for expenses related to housing the spy plane and its crew. It rejected a U.S. offer of $34,000 as unacceptable.

Coble said that because of security he couldn't discuss the repairs now being made or what the Chinese might have learned from the plane. But analysts say equipment left on board could have provided some information.

"What they would get most of all is a very, very powerful sense of what we are capable of listening to and what we are capable of finding out," said Bates Gill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "I think they would be very interested to find that out."

The EP-3 is basically a "giant electronics signals vacuum cleaner" that can monitor communications data from telephones, radios and even walkie-talkies, said Gill, head of the institution's Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies.

By monitoring radar, infrared and other weapons-tracking systems, it can determine how a country detects and then reacts to aircraft in or near its airspace, former military intelligence officer Roland Schumann said.

China would have been very interested to learn how the United States integrates the plane's various pieces of hardware, which can then communicate with submarines, ships and other planes and fuse intelligence gathered in the past with intelligence being gathered in real time, he said.

"The U.S. has spent an enormous amount of time and money to enhance and upgrade their intelligence systems, and any time an opposing force can get their hands on the end result of those years and money, it's in their best interest," he said.

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