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Associated Press
April 11, 2001

Dozens of Nations Fly Spy Aircraft

By Nancy Benac, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - U.S. spy planes aren't the only ones peering over the borders of other nations. With varying levels of sophistication, dozens of countries dispatch planes to peek in on one another.

"It's probably easier to say who doesn't do it," said Andrew Brookes, an air analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "It's not just the big boys."

Thanks to advances in technology, outfitting a standard plane with antennae and other surveillance equipment offers a relatively affordable alternative to launching expensive spy satellites, said Jeffrey Richelson, a senior fellow at the private National Security Archive in Washington.

While the United States collects electronic and communications signals from virtually every corner of the globe, most countries tend to focus on their neighbors, not on buzzing along American borders, military analysts say. The various "signals intelligence" networks include operations based on ships and land as well as in planes.

Paul Beaver of Jane's Information Group, publisher of Jane's Defense Weekly, said the Chinese surveillance operation lags well behind the Americans' in sophistication but is "coming up fast."

"China maintains by far the most extensive signals intelligence capabilities of all the countries in the Asia/Pacific region," Desmond Ball of the Australian National University wrote in a 1995 article in Jane's Intelligence Review.

The Chinese operation includes the turboprop EY-8, a modified version of a Soviet plane, that is designed to detect land- and ship-based radar emitters. As of 1995, it also had dozens of ground stations, half a dozen ships, truck-mounted systems and limited satellite capability to collect intelligence, according to Ball.

Hainan island, where Chinese officials are holding a U.S. Navy spy plane and its crew of 24, is the site of a large signals intelligence complex to monitor events in the South China Sea and the Philippines, particularly when there were U.S. bases there, he wrote.

China's principal focus is regional targets such as Vietnam, South Korea, North Korea, Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as U.S. military operations in the area. But China's planes - and those of other countries, for that matter - are not thought to be shadowing the borders of the U.S. mainland.

China's surveillance flights "tend to stay closer to their coast," says Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley. Other nations also are more focused on perceived threats closer to home, analysts say.

In the 1980s, the United States actually helped China set up ground-based signals intelligence sites along its border with the Soviet Union, according to Ball. The sites were built with equipment provided by the CIA, whose personnel visit periodically to advise Chinese operators and service the equipment, he wrote.

Beyond the United States, nations that have top signals intelligence networks include Britain, France, Germany and Israel, according to Beaver.

Russia's surveillance operation, meanwhile, has fallen on hard times since the end of the Cold War. Russia still carefully watches the United States, says Washington-based intelligence historian Matthew Aid, but it relies more on "passive" techniques such as its giant listening post in Cuba and three others within its own borders that pluck information from U.S. satellites.

Aid says Russia no longer flies surveillance aircraft along the U.S. coast, and its Cold War fleet of 50 or so intelligence-gathering ships is now probably down to one or two.

The last high-profile deployment at sea was in 1999, when Russia irked NATO by sending an intelligence-gathering ship to the Mediterranean to keep an eye on warships participating in attacks on Yugoslavia.

The Russians still fly regular surveillance flights in the Baltic Sea to monitor events in Poland, Sweden, Germany and Denmark, and occasional flights in the Barents Sea to eye Norway, in the Sea of Japan to peer at North Korea and Japan, and along its borders with China, Aid said.

"What resources they do have, they keep close to home," Aid said. "If you're short on cash, that's what you do - you economize."

Still, Russia has spent billions in recent years to operate and modernize its intelligence listening post in Lourdes, Cuba, which eavesdrops on America's military, companies and private citizens. Conversely, American officials monitor Cuba from the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

When critics in Congress last year tried to deny debt relief to Russia unless it shut down Lourdes, the Clinton administration defended the Russian operation, saying it helped Moscow monitor and verify arms control agreements.

The contrast between the U.S. attitude toward the Russian eavesdropping and China's anger at the U.S. spy flights shows two sides of the surveillance coin.

"This kind of surveillance can enhance stability between countries that are not hostile to one another," said Steve Aftergood of the private Federation of American Scientists. "It can aggravate tensions between countries that are in conflict."

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