U.S. resumes China reconnaissance flights
WASHINGTON (AP) – The U.S. military resumed surveillance flights near China on Monday, sending an Air Force RC-135 aircraft along the northeast coastline. No Chinese fighter jets tried to interfere.
The renewal of the reconnaissance flights came as the Bush administration pondered how to retrieve its downed Navy spy plane – sitting crippled on a Chinese military runway since the April 1 collision with a Chinese fighter jet.
At the White House, spokesman Ari Fleischer declined comment on the latest flight beyond noting that the administration’s position has been that the surveillance efforts preserve peace in the region.
The administration had said it intended to resume surveillance missions at some point but refused to specify a time. China has demanded an end to the flights. Its military jets have routinely shadowed U.S. surveillance flights.
The RC-135 flew a ”routine pattern” from Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa and then back again, a defense official said, speaking only on condition of anonymity.
The unarmed aircraft had no U.S. fighter escorts during the daylight mission, the official added. He declined to comment on whether more flights would soon follow or where they might be sent.
Monday’s was the first such flight since the Navy EP-3E Aries II plane collided with the Chinese fighter jet last month and the U.S. plane was forced to make an emergency landing on China’s southern Hainan island.
The pilot of the Chinese jet was lost in the collision and the 24 crew members of the EP-3E were held by on Hainan for 11 days. The U.S. plane was badly damaged in the incident and officials say the Chinese likely harvested valuable intelligence from the plane, although the crew apparently managed to destroy the most sensitive information.
The RC-135 and the Navy’s EP-3E are older aircraft that have been rebuilt to collect and analyze electronic signals to monitor military communications and activities. The turbofan RC-135 operates with a crew of up to 27 people, including three pilots, two navigators, three electronic warfare officers, 14 intelligence operators and maintenance technicians.
On Sunday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he believed China would allow the United States to get the EP-3E back, and that the plane could be repaired sufficiently to fly it out. ”We’ll know later this week,” he said on NBC’s ”Meet the Press.”
The Lockheed Martin technicians who inspected the plane last week presented their assessment and recommendations Monday to Adm. Dennis Blair, commander in chief of the Hawaii-based U.S. Pacific Command, said spokesman Lt. Col. Stephen Barger.
”No specific decision or recommendation has been made yet,” Barger said. ”Pacific Command is considering their recommendations right now.”
A U.S. defense official said Monday the technicians determined the repair probably would take several days. Another alternative would be to chop the aircraft into pieces and remove it by barge or fly the pieces out onboard a transport plane.
President Bush is expected to make the final decision on whether to press China for permission to repair the Navy aircraft.
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