As reported in April of 2001, when a collision with a Chinese F-8 fighter forced a badly damaged US Navy EP-3E to make a forced landing in that communist country, although the crew had been able to destroy much of the secret hardware, software, and codes, it was feared that some sensitive material fell into Chinese hands. This forecast is now being confirmed.
The aircraft, an EP-3E, was a derivative of the P-3C Orion anti-submarine warfare airplane. A recently released Navy 120-page report on the incident reveals new information. The crew of the EP-3, that made a forced landing on China's Hainan Island in 2001, did not destroy all classified materials aboard, and it is "highly probable" that some fell into Chinese hands.
During the minutes following the collision and the aircraft commander's recovery from the resulting nearly inverted flight attitude (a maneuver never practiced in an aircraft as large as the P-3), Naval Security Group intelligence personnel on board frantically threw classified documents out an aircraft hatch and smashed classified equipment to prevent it from falling into Chinese hands. After an emergency landing at Lingshui Airfield, the crew continued to "hand-shred" classified documents, the report said. However, not all the material could be destroyed.
While the report did not address the possible damage from the compromise of classified information, it did go on to note that, "The destruction of classified material was accomplished while the aircrew was probably still in shock from the aircraft collision and the subsequent rapid descent of the aircraft and with very little time prior to landing." After noting that "destruction of all classified materials onboard did not occur," the report concluded that "compromise by the People's Republic of China of undestroyed classified material is highly probable and cannot be ruled out."
The aircraft carried advanced electronic gear known as the Sensor System Improvement Program that integrates tactical communications, electronic-support measures and a special signal-processing system. It also carried the upgraded version of the Joint Signals Intelligence Avionics Family Block Modernization Update, which improves onboard SIGINT processing during flight.
The report absolves the crew of any blame and then recommends that aircrew integration regarding NSG crew integrity with squadron CRCs should be given emphasis. The report also recommends that "A safe, lightweight, reliable and robust destruction device or apparatus should be considered to facilitate proper emergency destruction of classified material carried onboard the EP-3E aircraft."
The report emphasized that the Chinese fighter pilot recklessly caused the collision by flying inside the propeller arc of one of the EP-3s four engines. The crew was not faulted for failing to complete the destruction of unspecified classified information. The $80 million EP-3 has since been reassembled and repaired and is back in service.
It is unlikely that we will at any time soon learn just how much information and technology was compromised. -- K.B. Sherman