The average American citizen could not even spell SIGINT (pronounced sig' int) and had no clue about signals intelligence on April 1, 2001. But when I heard a news flash that date about a U.S. Navy P-3 aircraft in an emergency landing on Hainan Island, China, I considered it a dire situation. I hoped it was not an EP-3 surveillance plane. Learning that the crew survived provided some relief, but further identification of the plane as an EP-3E Aries II signals intelligence reconnaissance aircraft affected the most significant project of my career, this book.
As originally planned, this book focused on one incident, the shootdown of an Air Force C-130 SIGINT reconnaissance aircraft in 1958 with the loss of seventeen crewmen. That tight focus soon developed into a much broader consideration of the dangers of aerial reconnaissance throughout the Cold War. Having described incident after incident in which a peacetime aerial reconnaissance platform was blown out of the sky over international waters, we were now confronted with yet another incident, this time involving only one death, as opposed to those times in the past when an entire crew had died. There have always been inherent dangers associated with manned airborne reconnaissance missions--yet the missions were and still are necessary.
The recent encounter over the South China Sea between the Navy EP-3E aircrew and two Chinese air force fighter pilots clearly shows that today's surveillance flights are every bit as perilous as the recon missions of our airborne recon pioneers more than 50 years ago. From the beginning of the Cold War, one of the primary results of aerial reconnaissance was to allow the U.S. to hold down military spending because the country had a very accurate idea of potential enemies' ability to carry out hostile actions, and, simultaneously, that knowledge allowed the United States to avoid other potential Pearl Harbors. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the Unites States employs the world's most sophisticated intelligence surveillance satellites, but these satellites complement rather than replace manned intelligence collection platforms. Airborne reconnaissance, working in tandem with surveillance satellites, is still necessary to forewarn America of the military capabilities and intents of its adversaries.
Operating in excess of 60 miles from Chinese shores, the EP-3E crew was engaged in signals intelligence surveillance against China, a completely legal mission similar to the thousands of other peacetime aerial reconnaissance program (PARPRO) flights flown by U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy crews each year--in all areas of the world. Unlike covert overflight reconnaissance missions that intentionally violate foreign airspace, “peripheral” PARPRO missions operate overtly in international airspace, well outside the twelve-mile territorial zones claimed by China and other nations. Many countries--China and Russia included--conduct similar aerial recon missions against potential adversaries. China operates its own electronic surveillance fleet of auxiliary ships and aircraft that operate along the coasts of Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.
The goal of any national intelligence is to provide a factual basis for political decision-making. To take the most obvious example, the downed EP-3 and its sister aircraft have always played a large role in American decisions on precisely what weapons to provide to Taiwan. The ultimate considerations, correct or incorrect, are political, but they must be based on accurate estimates of the nature of the threat.
The vast majority of airborne reconnaissance missions are completed without incident, but the U.S.-Chinese collision on April 1, 2001 demonstrates one of the myriad dangers confronting reconnaissance crews. Because of the extraordinary skill of its pilot, the twenty-four EP-3 crew members survived a midair collision and are safely home. This time it was the fighter pilot who died. In part, ironically enough, he died because China did not want to create an incident with the United States. Shadowing the plane with his wingman, creating turbulence by flying directly beneath the recon plane and then suddenly starting a climb immediately in front of it, he misjudged his distance. He performed that dangerous maneuver precisely because China does not officially consider the United States its enemy. Had we been enemies, in the sense that the Soviet Union was an enemy even in peacetime, he would have blown up the American plane from a safe distance. Nowadays, it seems, the opponent pesters the recon plane. In the Cold War, in too many cases, the approved method was to kill it.
This book is about those kills.
April 20, 2001
Copyright © 2001 by Larry Tart and Robert Keefe