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Could U.S. Spy Plane Advance China’s Naval Capabilities?
0020 GMT, 010406 Source: Stratfor.com | Stratfor China Coverage

China’s acquisition of a U.S. Navy EP-3E surveillance plane could help Beijing develop a more modern military, capable of projecting force in Asia. The plane could provide Beijing clues on how to advance its naval capabilities – the key thrust of its modernization – without the knowledge of Western intelligence. China has a long history of reverse engineering foreign technology. If successful in this case, it will better understand how the electronically advanced U.S. military operates.

China has embarked on a major modernization of its military forces, focusing most heavily on developing a blue-water navy capable of operating far from its 7,400 mile shoreline out into the South China Sea to the contested Spratly Islands and beyond.

The U.S. EP-3E Aires II signals intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft – probably searching for signs of Chinese submarine activities by monitoring military communications traffic in the area – remains in Chinese military hands. What was on board could help speed up that modernization because electronic warfare (EW) skills, including protecting and intercepting military communications and radar traffic, have been a major deficiency that Beijing has been working to overcome.

The American spy plane on Hainan Island could provide Beijing not only with technology and information to help hide its own military activities from the United States and others, but also with critical knowledge of how to monitor other militaries’ movements and gauge their motives. Although an increasingly difficult task, technological know-how gained from reverse engineering the electronic components and other high-tech eavesdropping devices could propel China, and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in particular, further toward its long-term goal of being a major conventional military power in the region.

Clearly, the technology found on board in the EP-3E could give China electronic capabilities that would have taken years for it to develop on its own. The plane’s systems, designed to detect and classify a wide range of electronic signals from satellite transmissions to radar waves, could help China block its own emissions so that the United States and others cannot listen in. By knowing the frequencies, the U.S. hones in on and how they are processed, Beijing could develop effective countermeasures.

The PLAN’s EW efforts have emphasized the development of radars that can frequency hop, antennas that reduce signal levels and digital processing technologies for signal canceling to conceal what it is up to.

The EP-3E also has some of the physical sub-hunting characteristics of its predecessor the P-3 Orion, which could also be highly useful in China’s efforts to operate its submarines far from the mainland without detection.

Perhaps more importantly, the EP-3E could improve China’s ability to monitor and identify military forces in the region. “The PLAN’s major combatants are expected to have an extensive EW suite,” the Pentagon told Congress in 1998. Its naval forces “will have intercept systems designed to detect and locate enemy radar and communications signals.”

The PLAN wants to intercept radar, communications and electro-optical and infrared threats as well as have the capability to employ countermeasures against them, the U.S. intelligence community warns.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute concluded that while China generally views the American military presence in East Asia as beneficial to regional stability, PLAN strategists “believe that the U.S. Navy’s presence in the Western Pacific, and surrounding water, will become destabilizing.”

As a result, according to Lanxin Xiang at the Programme for Strategic and International Security Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, “the Chinese leadership has always believed that concentrating efforts to enhance defensive and offensive capabilities of one service, the PLAN, is the most cost-effective.”

Seeking to minimize the naval threat the United States and others pose should China and Taiwan go to blows or Beijing decide to move on the hotly contested Spratly Islands, the PLAN has procured Russian destroyers, is developing a new frigate and more importantly is focusing its energies on putting to sea a highly advanced submarine force.

The U.S. spy plane, according to Chinese sources and a series of incidents in recent months and years, was monitoring submarine maneuvers in the South China Sea to gather intelligence on a new, very quiet version of the Kilo-class diesel submarine completed a year ago as well as a new Chinese version of the Russian Victor III attack submarine. The Victor III was to be outfitted with anti-ship missiles that could target American aircraft carriers, surface ships and submarines for the first time. According to open source materials, the Victor III was to be completed in late 2000 or early 2001.

U.S. military officials in the Pacific maintained as recently as March 28 that it is already becoming increasingly difficult to keep tabs on what the Chinese and other militaries in the region are doing as they seek to advance their secure communications and other capabilities to cloak their activities.

“Intelligence is essential to monitor potential adversary developments and preparations so that we can train our forces for the threats they face and move them into position in a timely fashion,” Adm. Dennis Blair, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, told the U.S. Congress in prepared testimony.

“Shortages of airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets – U-2s, RC-135s, EP-3s – significantly impact readiness ratings. These shortfalls diminish our situational awareness, early indications and warning (I&W), and deep knowledge of the capabilities, plans and intentions of key theaters in our area of responsibility. We do not have the surge capability to monitor crises or cyclical increases of potential adversary activities.”

The PLAN has been working overtime to further hide its activities from the United States and other Western militaries as it aggressively pursues what it calls “information dominance.”

In May 1996, the People’s Liberation Army Daily published an article calling for greater attention to radar and communications emission security. The Chinese have also studied the success of U.S. SIGINT in monitoring Iraqi electronic countermeasures before and during the Gulf War.

“Beijing’s highest priority for strategic modernization is in the realm of information,” according to Mark Stokes of the nonpartisan Strategic Studies Institute. “One of the most important pillars in China’s quest for information dominance is denying an adversary information on [military] plans, force deployments and vulnerabilities, and protecting the [military’s] ability to command and control its forces.”

China is likely to use one of its primary strengths to help achieve these goals: reverse engineering foreign technology. This has come in handy in the past, most recently when it reportedly pilfered U.S. nuclear weapons secrets. “China’s mostly likely avenue of defense modernization is the process of reverse engineering a modern military,” the U.S. Center for Naval Analysis said in a 1996 report.

The extent to which China can reverse engineer the EP-3E’s onboard systems will probably depend on two factors: how much the crew destroyed before landing and how much of the aircraft’s high-tech systems are software-based versus hardware-based. The software is the prize because it is computer code that allows the aircraft to process what it is listening to, while the hardware is not as important from an intelligence perspective.

On the first point, there have been conflicting reports on how much of the most sensitive technologies on board the crew was able to conceal. But Pentagon sources say the pilot was ordered before taking off from Japan to put the safety of the crew first and to make all else secondary, including protecting the plane’s secrets. The short duration between the plane’s collision with a Chinese fighter jet and its landing makes it likely that only some of the precautions were taken.

On the second point, military sources familiar with the EP-3E contend that while it is the most advanced aircraft of its kind, much of its technology dates back several decades. While the fleet of 11 Aires planes has gone through subsequent upgrades to introduce the latest in digital processing capabilities, it still depends highly on more conventional, even analog, eavesdropping technologies that are much easier to reverse engineer. For example, the latest in voice processors has only been outfitted on a portion of the fleet, according to military sources. So there could still be a lot to learn and ultimately end up in the Chinese military.

According to a 1998 report by the U.S. Department of Defense, “China is seeking to procure state-of-the-art intercept, direction-finding and jamming equipment to upgrade poorly equipped ground-based, ship borne and air forces, and to serve as a template for a robust reverse-engineering effort. In so doing, China has established close commercial ties with electronic companies in numerous countries.”

The Chinese, the report added, are expected to produce the majority of the naval EW systems; however, some foreign systems or components are imported from various sources, most likely from Europe and Russia. Significantly, the report notes: “The performance of Chinese naval EW systems probably will continue to lag behind state-of-the-art Western EW systems.”

Now, with the EP-3E – whose crew may or may not have destroyed all the sensitive technology and data on board the aircraft before making an emergency landing; one former pilot said it is unlikely any permanent damage was done – the Chinese may not be lagging as much for long.

Despite the final disposition of the American EP-3E and its crew, China has a piece of intelligence-gathering equipment that could, if the conditions are right, go a long way in helping it speed up its efforts to develop and equip a high-tech naval force that can operate more freely in Chinese territorial waters and well beyond, particularly in the South China Sea.

Relying on its experience in reverse engineering foreign technologies, the Chinese will try and glean as much as they can from the American spy plane. If successful, the Chinese naval capabilities and intensions that the United States has been so keen to uncover may become all that much harder to gauge.
© Stratfor.com 2001


Was America Hunting for a New, Killer Submarine? 4 April 2001

A series of incidents – stretching back several years and culminating in the apparent loss of the EP-3E aircraft – indicates that the United States has been hunting for signs of a breakthrough in Chinese submarine technology. Sources inside China and a series of incidents stretching back months and years indicate that Western militaries have been intensively hunting for clues to two new classes of submarines. One is a quiet, diesel design. The other is a potential breakthrough: a homegrown version of the Russian Victor III that would allow Beijing’s navy for the first time to threaten America’s most powerful conventional weapon, the aircraft carrier. Click here to continue.

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