DEFENDING AMERICA
DAVID H. HACKWORTH
10 April 2001

IS IT TIME TO BRING OUR RECON GAME INTO THE 21ST CENTURY?

Reconnaissance work on the ground, under the sea and in the air is Purple Heart dangerous. That's why, in all branches of our military, the recon troops -- the eyes and ears of the commanders -- are special warriors who bravely serve you and me.

With the downing of our aircraft off China, we are again reminded of the high risk these soldiers and sailors take. It's hazardous duty -- not only for recon warriors, but also for the nation that says "execute."

It's doubtful an investigation will determine what happened while our surveillance plane was checking out a new Chinese supership on maneuvers off China. Beijing will continue to insist our aircraft bumped theirs, and Washington will say the fault was made in China -- just like the U.S. Army's 500,000 black berets. The latest drama will be played out not unlike a fender bender -- both drivers carrying on and accusing the other until a tow truck hauls the wrecks away and the cops cool off the finger-shakers.

The questions I keep hearing from Americans concerning this latest episode of a U.S. recon aircraft being caught with its wings over another country's newest toy are:

*Why are we spying on Red China when its military doesn't have a secret weapon that Los Alamos, Loral and Hughes, the White House or 56,000 Chinese students studying and spying in the USA didn't slip them in recent years?

*Why does the Pentagon use such an old-fashioned method of collecting information when we have highly sophisticated satellites capable of tuning in to the most sensitive Chinese intell at no risk -- augmented by unmanned platforms and scores of land-based listening posts that surround China solely to eavesdrop on military/diplomatic whispers and fill in the dots?

*Why weren't U.S. Navy fighter aircraft escorting the lumbering EP-3, especially since, for the past several months, the Chinese have been harassing our recon planes -- which have made more than 2,000 such flights in the past year and a half alone -- and becoming so increasingly bold that our ambassador recently asked the Chinese brass to knock it off?

*Why didn't our aircraft ditch in the sea after the fighter piloted by Captain Wang Wei -- aka "Captain Wrong Way" to U.S. Navy aircrew -- struck our aircraft while he was hot-dogging?

*Why didn't our crew bail out and let our spy bird crash into the sea rather than land at a communist military base and provide the Chinese with an intelligence coup?

A few answers from present and former recon men:

*Ditching or crashing into the drink would have minimized the risk of our military secrets being scarfed up. And by not crashing, our Pacific commanders -- who, these sources say, authorized the landing -- allowed the Chinese to help themselves at their leisure to whatever our crew couldn't destroy during the hairy last 20 minutes of their flight, which they say was punctuated by Chinese fighter aircraft machine-gun fire.

*The plane's flaps were so badly damaged from the collision that a sea landing was impossible. Another reason past and present EP-3E crew members gave for not ditching is that the aircraft was so loaded with heavy surveillance gear, it would've broken up had it tried to make a water landing -- and there'd have been high casualties among the crew.

*Because of all the spy gear aboard, there was no room for parachutes.

*The hard-core recon people say the CO and the pilot should have accepted the risk of casualties by ditching -- that it would've been an acceptable exchange for the loss of secrets that could compromise national security and ultimately cost thousands of American casualties.

Spying will never disappear as long as there are more than two tribes on planet Earth. Twenty-five hundred years ago, when Native American tribes were probably still throwing rocks at each other, Chinese philosopher/general Sun Tzu wrote, "Spies are a most important element of war, because upon them depends an army's ability to move."

We shouldn't stop the spy game -- we've just got to do it smarter. In the 21st century, the risk of scoping out what's going down in other countries with obsolete and redundant 20th-century surveillance systems isn't worth the gain or the flap when we invariably get caught.