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April 13, 2001

Notes from the Pentagon

Chinese feared raid
Pentagon intelligence officials said China's military was ready to repulse a covert U.S. military attack on Hainan Island to capture the detained American crew and its damaged EP-3E Aries II intelligence-gathering plane. Chinese military commanders ordered a special command post set up on Hainan Island, the South China Sea island where the crew made an emergency landing April 1.

Every night the best time for such raids the Chinese are placing concrete barriers at either end of the damaged EP-3E aircraft just in case U.S. commandos attack and try to get the intelligence-gathering plane out of the country.

Officials told us unspecified military options were discussed among top Bush administration national security officials during the standoff, but only in the remote chance the 24 hostages were being mistreated, tortured or killed. Special forces commando units in Japan were readied just in case.

Lt. Osborn's decision
An internal Navy memo says Lt. Shane Osborn, pilot of the EP-3E surveillance plane detained by China, made the correct decision to land the crippled turboprop in China rather than risk ditching in the South China Sea.

"The EP-3E aircraft commander and crew, presented with compound emergencies, complex tactical considerations and complex diplomatic considerations, succeeded in keeping his crew safe and intact," says the memo from an Navy aviation official.

The memo says damage to two propellers, the nose cone and a wing after colliding with a Chinese F-8 fighter greatly reduced the chance of a successful ditching. In other words, a sea landing would likely have killed the 24-member crew.

"The squadron emergency action plan states: 'While every effort shall be made to prevent classified material from falling into the hands of hostile personnel, emergency destruction is secondary to aircrew safety,' " the memo states.

"Landing the aircraft in the PRC represented the best option for maintaining the safety of the aircrew. The aircraft commander exercised sound judgment in electing to land the stricken aircraft [instead of] attempting to bailout or ditch . . . The aircrew should be commended for their professional handling of this emergency."

EP-3E upgrade
One reason the Pentagon is so intent on getting back the EP-3E now parked on the runway at Hainan's Lingshui airfield is that the intelligence-gathering equipment on board was some of the U.S. intelligence community's most advanced gear. The EP-3E was one of several of the 11 signals-intelligence planes to receive a recent upgrade package. "It recently got some new equipment," one official told us.

Initial debriefings of the released crew indicate the 22 sailors, one airman and one Marine managed to do a good job of destroying the equipment before landing April 1.

Intelligence officials said the Chinese military sent about 100 technicians to pore over the aircraft after its arrival.

What was on board? Rear Adm. John Nathman, the Navy's director of air warfare, stated in an article in June that one upgrade being added to the EP-3E squadron is known as the Sensor System Improvement Program (SSIP). "SSIP incorporates new tactical communications, electronic support measures and special signal processing and exploitation systems," Adm. Nathman said in the publication Naval Aviation News.

A second major EP-3E improvement that was on board the downed plane is the Joint Signals Intelligence Avionics Family Block Modernization Program (JMOD). The EP-3E JMOD comes in three "blocks," or versions.

According to Adm. Nathman, the first one improves onboard handling and processing of signals, and a second version adds a low-band subsystem and improves data fusion through what is known as Common Data Link, "which provides crucial connectivity for network centric warfare," Adm. Nathman said. The third version "adds a precision targeting system," he said.

The exact version of the JMOD upgrade on the EP-3E held by the Chinese could not be learned, but officials said it was at least one of the three.

Truth offensive
Now that 24 Americans have been released from captivity from China, the Bush administration is planning a public relations campaign to explain why the Chinese government and military version of events near Hainan Island is completely wrong.

The facts, according to Pentagon sources, when released by the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence community, will show that Chinese pilot Wang Wei acted recklessly in intercepting the EP-3E surveillance aircraft and caused the chain of events that led to the captivity.

The intelligence includes videotape of previous Chinese intercepts as close as 20 feet from U.S. aircraft and cockpit voice communications from the EP-3E that made the emergency landing on Hainan Island.

Pro-China officials in the government are opposing the planned truth offensive. They argue that explaining in detail what happened will further inflame already tense relations with China.

Other officials say the only question remaining is who will get the call to lay out the facts. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage is State's choice, while Pentagon officials would like to see Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld come out swinging with the offensive.

EP-3E diplomacy
Rep. Donald Manzullo, Illinois Republican, decided to try a little congressional diplomacy during the EP-3E standoff when he encountered Yang Jiechi, new Chinese ambassador to the United States, at a Washington dinner April 3.

The occasion was a celebration of United Parcel Service gaining access to a new China route. Mr. Manzullo's northern Illinois district includes a UPS airport hub. His district also is home to 20-year-old Seaman Jeremy Crandall, one of the 24 EP-3E crew members detained 11 days by the Chinese.

During the dinner, Mr. Manzullo took the opportunity to hand Mr. Yang an old friend of former President George Bush a letter politely urging the Americans' release.

Mr. Manzullo wrote, in part, "As chairman of the Interparliamentary Exchange Group between the U.S. and China, I have a keen interest in promoting stable relations between our two countries. Quickly releasing the crewmen to allow them to return home would send a positive humanitarian gesture that I know would be appreciated by parents across this country like Tom and Shirley Crandall [Seaman Crandall's] parents."

Pentagon 'upheaval'
One defense industry official is predicting "earth-shattering" changes in the way the Navy buys ships. The official, who asked not to be named, has been talking to Pentagon officials about options in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's ongoing top-to-bottom review. The Pentagon is expected to announce initial results in May in time for inclusion in the fiscal 2002 defense budget. But most major decisions will await the fiscal 2003 budget.

This official told us he expects an "upheaval" in the shipbuilding industry, with perhaps a shrinking from two U.S. submarine builders to one and commitment to smaller aircraft carriers. The source also said he would not be surprised to see the review recommend cancellation of not only the Joint Strike Fighter but also the Air Force's F-22 Stealth fighter.

America first
Three Republican senators are calling on President Bush to block a Dutch company's acquisition of the Silicon Valley Group Inc. (SVG). The company has made state-of-the art satellite optics and is a leading manufacturer of tools used to make computer chips.

The three are Sens. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma; Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas; and Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire.

The senators said in an April 10 letter to President Bush that the proposed acquisition by the Dutch firm ASML Lithography raises the risk that the U.S. company's cutting-edge know-how will find its way to potential adversaries.

An interagency panel, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), is now reviewing the proposed acquisition before making a recommendation to Mr. Bush.

"We believe the proposed takeover of SVG by the Dutch firm ASML is a threat to national security," the three wrote. "We urge you to use your authority under law to block this proposed transaction."

  • Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are Pentagon reporters. Gertz can be reached at 202/636-3274 or by e-mail at can be reached at 202/636-3208 or by e-mail at

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