SLUG: 5-49241 US Spy Plane DATE: NOTE NUMBER:









INTRO: The U-S Navy surveillance aircraft at the center of a U-S-Chinese diplomatic tussle is considered an important military intelligence-gathering tool. From the Pentagon, V-O-A Correspondent Alex Belida takes a closer look at the plane known as the EP-3 (officially the EP-3E Aires-2).

TEXT: For decades, U-S aircraft like the EP-3 have flown surveillance missions along China's borders, their activities monitored closely by Chinese aircraft.

But Pentagon officials say never before have there been any collisions or emergency landings like the one Sunday.

An EP-3, operating out of Japan, collided with one of two Chinese fighters that intercepted it over international waters in the South China Sea. The American plane sustained damage, declared an emergency, and landed at the nearest airstrip - on China's Hainan Island.

The unarmed plane with four turboprop engines had 24 people on board - the usual crew complement. Pentagon officials say the equipment on board included an array of state-of-the-art electronic surveillance devices.

Navy sources say the equipment enabled the crew to intercept, collect, and identify a variety of Chinese electronic communications signals of potential interest to U-S military commanders.

These sources say that in the event of capture or other possible compromise of the aircraft's security, crewmembers have specific procedures for protecting sensitive equipment and any information that collected on a mission.

These sources declined to discuss those procedures. It is not known whether the crew of the EP-3 down at Hainan Island destroyed or disabled the equipment on board.

The Navy has 11 such EP-3 aircraft deployed in two squadrons. The one down at Hainan is from a Washington-state based squadron whose planes and personnel are nicknamed the "World Watchers." They are responsible for Navy electronic reconaissance from the east coast of Africa to the west coast of the United States.

The EP-3's are essentially 40-year-old aircraft which have received electronic and other upgrades. They are capable of flying for up to 12 hours on a single mission and have a range of close to five-thousand kilometers.

Intelligence sources say the normal crew of 24 consists includes three pilots, a navigator, and a flight engineer. But most of the personnel are equipment operators, technicians, and mechanics.

Pentagon officials say they have had no communications with the crew of the EP-3 down at Hainan since it reported a safe landing. These officials are concerned Chinese authorities might gain access to equipment and information on the plane. They are stressing that the plane has what they term "sovereign immunity" meaning authorities of no other country can board or hold the aircraft.

Because of the incident, three U-S Navy destroyers have been ordered into the South China Sea to monitor the situation. The vessels were en route back to the United States from duty in the Persian Gulf. They had been making a stopover in Hong Kong when diverted.

Admiral Dennis Blair, commander of the U-S Pacific Command, says the Chinese intercepts of U-S surveillance aircraft in recent months have become more aggressive.

He calls them a danger to the safety of both the U-S and Chinese planes involved and says U-S authorities have lodged a protest. (Signed)