Wednesday, April 18, 2001



By Ralph Cossa

Do we need so many
surveillance flights?

A critical issue between Chinese and American officials in the aftermath of the accident in which an EP-3E intelligence plane made an emergency landing on Hainan Island in China will be the continuation of these surveillance flights and whether the United States needs 400 flights a year, or more than one a day.

The United States argues, correctly, that such flights are legal and common practice. Many nations, including China, fly similar missions to monitor the activities of neighboring military forces and to collect information. One of the primary U.S. objectives during the negotiations in Beijing, beyond the return of the EP-3E aircraft and its intelligence hardware, is to obtain Chinese agreement to abide by the "rules of the road" regarding intercepts and to reduce the prospects of future incidents. The U.S. plane was nearly crippled when it was bumped by a Chinese jet fighter, which then crashed. The Chinese pilot is missing and presumed dead.


The Chinese, who appear in no rush to return the American aircraft, have a much simpler solution to avoid future incidents -- a halt to all American intelligence flights around China. The United States is not likely to give up these surveillance missions -- nor should it, given the lack of military transparency today in China. As long as China retains the ability to threaten U.S. interests and forces in the Asia-Pacific region, the collection of intelligence seems warranted.

This is particularly true, given America's commitment to help provide for Taiwan's defense, as embodied in the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, and the Chinese penchant for resorting to the threat of force to keep Taiwan in line.

I spent enough time in intelligence operations during 26 years of military duty to understand the value of these so-called "electronic vacuum cleaner missions" that provide valuable insights into Chinese military hardware, including radar types and locations, which helps in assessing military capabilities. Ironically, whenever the Chinese respond, the missions then collect data on Chinese Air Force intercept techniques and capabilities.

My experience also causes me to question why so many flights are needed during peacetime, especially given the availability of less intrusive intelligence-gathering methods such as those with satellites. When hostilities appear imminent, increased intelligence collection is essential to determine changes in enemy capabilities. When relations are generally normal -- as Sino-U.S. relations are today despite a continuing war of words -- daily missions appear to be unnecessarily provocative and neither cost-effective nor necessary.

Consequently, a reassessment of the wisdom and operational necessity of so many flights appears in order even though Chinese demands that such missions cease provide more incentive for them to continue. This U.S. assessment should be based on current intelligence requirements, not Chinese demands and should not be negotiated during current talks.

One topic that could be discussed is the question of prior notification in which the United States would notify the Chinese about when and where a flight would occur. This procedure is frowned upon by the United States as jeopardizing operational security and for fear that it could become the first step toward "prior approval," a different and (rightfully) unacceptable condition.

That a country has the right to fly surveillance missions over international waters adjacent to another country without prior notification does not preclude it from such notification as a confidence-building measure. Recently, Beijing and Tokyo reached such an agreement pertaining to naval activity in disputed waters around one another's exclusive economic zones.

This could provide a useful model for Washington and Beijing, although an agreement should apply to Chinese as well as American reconnaissance. It should be part of a larger agreement that includes the return of the American plane and a halt to dangerous tactics by Chinese fighter pilots. Developing a prior notification regime for surface and air reconnaissance and for military exercises also might well be considered in multilateral forums in East Asia.

Ralph A. Cossa is president of the Pacific
Forum, a research institute in Honolulu.

E-mail to Editorial Editor

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2001 Honolulu Star-Bulletin