FAS | Secrecy | April 2001 News ||| Index | Search | Join FAS

Chicago Tribune
April 5, 2001

Benefits to China Downplayed:
Crew Should Have Destroyed Tapes, Some Equipment

By Rogers Worthington, Tribune staff reporter.

If American crew members managed to destroy sensitive recorded data and software programs aboard the Navy surveillance craft on Hainan Island, Chinese intelligence analysts would be unlikely to emerge with anything that could seriously damage future U.S. intelligence gathering efforts, civilian military analysts said Wednesday.

"Assuming they erased tapes and hard drives before they went down, that has to be 90 percent of the value of the airplane," said John Pike, a Virginia-based defense intelligence expert and director of GlobalSecurity.org, which analyzes defense, intelligence and space policy.

The big question, however, is just how much the crew was able to destroy after the plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea on Sunday. The answer won't be known until U.S. officials can speak with crew members unencumbered by the presence of Chinese officials or monitoring devices, said a U.S. Navy spokesman.

"They talked to crew members with Chinese in the room. They were not able to discuss what actually was destroyed," said Lt. Commander Dawn Cutler of the Navy's information office at the Pentagon.

Some success

U.S. officials who traveled to Hainan Island said crew members told them they had succeeded in destroying at least some of the intelligence gathering equipment and data before the plane landed, The Associated Press reported Wednesday.

The EP-3E contains a potential gold mine of surveillance software and technology. After satellite surveillance, the next most critical level of electronic military intelligence gathering falls to surveillance aircraft, said Martin Streetly, editor of Jane's Electronic Missions Aircraft.

Designated an EP-3E Aries II--for Airborne Reconnaissance Integrated Electronic System--the plane is the latest incarnation of the Lockheed Martin P-3C Orion, a lumbering, 140,000-pound, four-engine turboprop that has seen surveillance service for more than 40 years.

It is intended, according to a Navy description, "to exploit a wide range of electronic emissions from deep within targeted territory."

The $36 million plane carries a baseline package of radar, radio and wireless surveillance equipment. By flying within Chinese radar range, the EP-3E's equipment can "read" the Chinese radar's range capability, determine its strengths and weaknesses, and track transmissions from the radar facility to its command post, and on to a central operations center.

"You get a picture of how the Chinese air defense network works," Streetly said. "You can then put in countermeasures if you can build a transmitter that reports false targets into the radar."

If the radar is on a foreign ship, analysis of its signals can determine what kind of ship it is, he said.

Another signals intelligence package on the plane monitors and deciphers encrypted and non-encrypted Chinese radio broadcast traffic.

But the most powerful programs and equipment on board are directed toward taking disparate pieces of radar, radio and wireless information, and integrating them into a coherent bigger picture, Streetly said.

"What the Chinese are not particularly good at is integrating system to system--integrating the data from the cryptologist with the electronic intelligence data, and the radar data," he said, indicating that if the software was destroyed, the Chinese would be prevented from gaining that U.S. technology.

The crew had between 12 minutes and 20 minutes in the air to destroy classified material on board before making the emergency landing. They had another dozen minutes or so after landing and before emerging from the aircraft, according to reports.

Crew members are routinely trained to destroy the classified material they work with, and nearly 16 of the 24 on board were involved with the gathering and analysis of data.

Pike, Streetly and other analysts emphasized that the software, passwords, manuals and recorded data, all of which are the easiest to erase and destroy, would have had the highest priority in any destruction scenario.

'Residual use'

"Ideally, the destruction of classified intelligence information, especially in digital form, is pretty straightforward," said Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst with the Federation of American Scientists. "The disabling of the technology is more time-consuming and less effective. Even if disabled, it may be of some residual use to an adversary."

It is not known whether crew members were strapped into their seats on the way to Hainan and unable to carry out all the prescribed destruction maneuvers. And while they may have been successful in destroying software and hard drive data, it's unknown how much equipment they could have destroyed.

"How do you destroy equipment in an airplane?" said Norman Polmar, a naval analyst who has written a number of books on naval aviation matters.

Even if the crew was able to destroy the equipment, Polmar does not discount the Chinese's ability to reconstruct it.

"We don't know how good the Chinese are," he said.

The Chinese will almost certainly be able to analyze the EP-3E's exterior antennas, and from that determine what frequencies the Navy uses and how weak or how faint a transmitter they can pick up.

"It would certainly inform their efforts to hide their communications from American intelligence and make it more difficult for American-equipped aircraft to jam their air defense radars," Pike said.

Copyright 2001 The Chicago Tribune

FAS | Secrecy | April 2001 News ||| Index | Search | Join FAS