Plane called an 'electronic vacuum cleaner' on routine mission
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. spy plane that made an emergency landing on Chinese soil over the weekend is an "electronic vacuum cleaner" that was on a routine reconnaissance mission when it collided with a Chinese fighter, U.S. military officials say.
On board the EP-3 Aries II aircraft are sophisticated eavesdropping devices, sensors, receivers and dish antennas to track radar as well as voice and satellite communications. Experts say the plane's most sensitive equipment is software and encryption devices used for unscrambling military codes.
"China could learn quite a bit from this airplane -- not necessarily hard and fast data as to what the aircraft was looking at or listening to, but more importantly the methods it uses," said military analyst Bryan Bender.
William Triplett, a China military specialist, added: "In the intelligence business, there's a word called the 'take.' And the word take means, 'What did you discover about the other guy?' And that's what the Chinese would want to know about more than anything else."
Did crew have time to destroy secret equipment?
At the Pentagon, sources told CNN that not only have Chinese authorities boarded the damaged surveillance plane, but they also have removed some sensitive equipment, despite U.S. demands to leave the plane alone. A Pentagon official said the plane's crew had begun to destroy sensitive equipment before the plane landed in Chinese territory, but the official did not know how far the process had progressed.
Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, would not confirm those reports at an afternoon news conference Tuesday. But Quigley acknowledged that the surveillance plane contained equipment and information that could be valuable to other nations. He said crews are trained to destroy such information, if they believe the plane is in trouble.
He said it was unclear if the 24 crew members had begun destroying sensitive information in the 15 to 20 minutes after the collision and before landing. He sought to explain what the crew was trained to do:
"You do an inventory ... of the equipment that you have on board your vessel or your aircraft to ascertain which pieces of equipment would be most valuable to a foreign government in learning about our capabilities and limitations," he said. "You then try to devise a plan where, should that vessel or aircraft become disabled or a situation like this, where you would land an aircraft on foreign soil, you would try to carry out as much of that emergency destruct plan as you could in the time that you had available to you."
'Overt, routine surveillance'
Quigley took issue with the description of the Navy EP-3 as a spy plane.
"Spying, to me, implies espionage. Spies take part in espionage, and that's not at all what we're talking about here," he said. "This was overt, routine surveillance and reconnaissance, which is carried out around the world on a pretty regular basis by a variety of nations, United States among them."
The United States says the plane was in international air space when it collided with the Chinese fighter. China has called itself the victim in the incident, saying the EP-3 veered into its jet. Chinese authorities also asserted a right to inspect the sophisticated reconnaissance aircraft, demanded an apology and called on the United States to end surveillance flights off their coast.
American officials are concerned that sensitive technical information could be copied or that the entire airplane could be replicated if it is never given back -- a tactic known as reverse engineering that has been used over the years to enhance a country's defense capabilities.
The most famous case of reverse engineering involved the U.S. B-29 Superfortress. Air & Space/Smithsonian Magazine gave this account in its February/March 2001 issue:
In July 1944, one of the giant bombers made an emergency landing in the Soviet Union, then a U.S. ally in the war against Germany. But the B-29 and two others that made similar emergency landings never returned home. At the time, the bomber was one of the most advanced aircraft in the United States' World War II fleet.
The Soviets confiscated the aircraft, took them apart and replicated them in just two years. The new Soviet craft was renamed the Tu-4, a plane that Soviet leader Josef Stalin had sought as an intercontinental bomber capable of hitting the United States.
The Soviets eventually built about 850 Tu-4s. One dropped a nuclear test bomb in 1951 in territory now known as Kazakstan.
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