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One of the biggest concerns being expressed by U.S. military and government leaders in the wake of the emergency landing by a Navy EP-3E surveillance plane at a Chinese air base is whether the aircraft’s sensitive intelligence-gathering equipment on board would fall into Beijing’s hands.

Indeed, various press accounts have quoted intelligence experts as claiming that classified satellite photos show Chinese officials have removed equipment from the plane.

The plane — formally known as an EP-3E “ARIES” (Airborne Reconnaissance Integrated Electronic Suite) II — was forced to make an emergency landing at an air base on the southern Chinese island of Hainan over the weekend after being “bumped” by a Chinese fighter sent aloft to monitor the flight’s activities.

By midday in the U.S. yesterday, reports said American diplomats in the region had finally been allowed to meet with at least some of the 24 crewmen who were aboard the plane when it was forced to land with wing and engine damage early Sunday morning.

According to Periscope, an online military news and information site, U.S. officials have much to be concerned about regarding the equipment aboard the plane. It is state-of-the-art, to say the least, and much more advanced than known Chinese surveillance assets.

The plane itself is unremarkable; it is a four-engine, low-wing, electronic warfare and reconnaissance aircraft. It is powered by four Allison T56-A-14 turboprop engines, and has a wingspan of 99 ft. 8 in.; a length of 105 ft. 11 in.; and a height of 34 ft. 3 in. The ARIES II is capable of over 12 hours of flight and has a range of over 3,000 nautical miles, Periscope said.

The real value of the aircraft lies in the equipment on board.

“The Navy’s small force of EP-3E electronic warfare and reconnaissance aircraft is forward-deployed to meet critical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance collection requirements,” Periscope said. “EP-3Es detect, interpret and report tactically significant communication and radar signals.

“There are currently 11 out of 12 aircraft required to meet worldwide commitments. The 12th aircraft, undergoing a P-3C to EP-3E conversion, will be ready in 2002,” said Periscope. “The 11 P-3Cs were fitted under the Conversion in Lieu of Production (CILOP) program. The improvements included: the AN/ALR-76 ESM/RWR fitted to the wingtips, a higher degree of automation, more powerful mission computer, larger crew, combined COMINT and ELINT suites, ARR-81 COMINT receiver, global positioning satellite and FLETSATCOM capability.”

The aircraft are also fitted with the Sensor System Improvement Program upgrade. The SSIP “incorporates new tactical communications, electronic support measures and special signal processing and exploitation systems,” Periscope said.

A second major EP-3E modernization effort is the Joint Signals Intelligence Avionics Family Block Modernization Program, or JMOD.

“Three block modifications are planned to keep the EP-3E ahead of the projected threat. Block 1 includes improved on-board data handling and processing. Block 2 adds a low band subsystem and improves data fusion capability including Common Data Link, which provides crucial connectivity for network centric warfare. Block 3 adds a precision targeting system,” the website said.

While highly technical, Periscope noted that the equipment used aboard the EP-3E is “cutting edge” and “far superior” to Chinese capabilities.

U.S. officials believe if the gear is recovered intact, China could reverse-engineer some or all of the equipment and produce it domestically.

Yesterday, Pentagon officials told UPI they are concerned the aircraft will never be
returned, and speculated that China will say it is holding the plane as evidence of
U.S. violation of international law. Even if the Chinese strip the aircraft in order to reverse engineer its technology, said the officials, the U.S. would still demand the plane’s return for political reasons.

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