China, U.S. no strangers in the sky
HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Mid-air meetings between U.S. surveillance aircraft and Chinese interceptors are regular occurrences, military experts say.
Robert Karniol, Asia-Pacific editor for the Jane's Defense Weekly military information service, says the EP-3 Aries II that was forced to land on Hainan Island after colliding with a Chinese jet fighter is repeatedly used to "listen in on the electronic activity in China".
Karniol says mid-air meetings between reconnaissance craft and interceptors such as China's single-seat F-8 fighter usually follow a set routine.
"The reconnaissance such as the EP-3 flies along the edge of Chinese airspace surveying and interpreting all kinds of activity, not just electronic but general traffic in the area," he says.
"Once the aircraft is detected, China, as any country would, sends up aircraft to investigate it, and they would certainly try to ward people off. The interceptor's job is to intimidate and follow the reconnaissance craft."
"Even if you're spying from international air space then the people being spied on would like to encourage you to leave. What is unusual about this case is that there was a collision in the process of doing that."
Not many EP-3s
The high-tech EP-3 spy plane forced to make an emergency landing on China's Hainan Island after a mid-air collision is one of only about 24 owned by the U.S. military.
The propeller-driven Navy EP-3 Aries II reconnaissance plane, based out of Japan, is used to conduct electronic warfare and reconnaissance using state-of-the-art electronic surveillance equipment.
Its regular crew complement is 24, comprising seven officers and 17 enlisted aircrew, most of which are specialists at using electronic surveillance equipment.
Each Aries II, worth about $36 million apiece, is capable of more than 12 hours of continuous flight and has a range of about 3000 nautical miles.
The locally made F-8 interceptors used by China to monitor the Aries II are based on a 25-year-old Russian MiG design. While aging, they are capable of reaching twice the speed of sound and are designed for air superiority as well as ground attacks.
"That means they can be armed with air-to-air missiles, they can drop bombs and they can shoot missiles at ground targets," says Karniol. "They're not particularly modern, but they are perfectly capable of shooting down an EP-3 Aries II," he says.
Compared with the large, slow and cumbersome EP-3, the F-8 is much more maneuverable, leading to debate as to who's fault it was that the two planes collided.
Although the exact details of the collision have not been revealed, Lt. Commander Sean Kelly, a spokesman for U.S. Pacific Command in Honolulu, says it's "a fair guess" that the two aircraft were flying side by side when their wings clipped each other.
The U.S. has officially labeled the collision an accident, but recently criticized Chinese pilots for being too aggressive in their interceptions and "endangering the safety of Chinese and American aircraft".
China blames U.S.
However, China has laid the blame squarely on the U.S. pilot. The State-run People's Daily newspaper reports the Chinese Foreign Ministry as saying "a US military surveillance plane bumped into and damaged a Chinese military jet" over the South China Sea Sunday.
China said its aircraft were engaged in "normal pursuit and monitoring activities" of the U.S. military plane when the EP-3 "veered" and hit the Chinese plane.
"It's very hard to run into a fighter with an EP-3," a former U.S. Navy official said on condition of anonymity.
The turboprop is lumbering compared with the swift fighter jet. "It's like having a sports car and a tractor-trailer," the official said.
In similar circumstances, foreign military jets will buzz close to the U.S. surveillance plane and sometimes take pictures just to make sure the Americans know they have been noticed, the former naval official said.
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