Don't Mess With the U.S.
Adm. Dennis Blair, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, said the plane, which contains sensitive cryptological and other electronic surveillance equipment, is considered sovereign territory, similar to an embassy. "We physically cannot prevent the Chinese from boarding the plane," he said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
— AP dispatch, 4/2/01, 3:19 pm
With all due respect, Admiral: the hell you say. The U.S. can prevent the Chinese from boarding the plane very easily, by destroying it. The administration should do this as speedily as possible, without any regard whatsoever to Chinese sensitivities, or indeed lives and property. The only question worth serious discussion is that of technique.
The EP-3 electronic reconnaissance plane, now in the hands of the Chinese authorities, is a compact package of state-of-the-art surveillance technology, used for monitoring Chinese military radio and computer traffic. The equipment is all highly classified. Says one expert in the field, Paul Beaver of the Jane's Information Group, publisher of the respected Jane's Defense Weekly: "It's catastrophic for the U.S. if the Chinese have managed to gain access to the aircraft and if they've managed to obtain access to the computers and the hard disks … The Chinese will probably sell the information to the Russians, so it means everyone will have access to one of the most sophisticated intelligence-gathering airplanes in the world."
It is of course in U.S. interests to prevent this from happening, if it's not already too late. The way to prevent it happening is to trash that plane, ASAP. Operational drills in the kind of situation that has occurred here — a hot-dogging Chinese fighter pilot clipped the plane over international waters, forcing it to land an hour later — require the crew to destroy as much sensitive data and equipment as they can. For all we know, however, something might have prevented their doing this, or they may not have been able to finish the job. You can't be too careful. That plane needs to be reduced to a heap of molten junk, and the sooner the better. There are two possible ways to do it: remotely, or personally.
To do it remotely, an air assault has to be launched, with precision-guided munitions targeted on the plane. There are a number of problems with this.
First, the plane needs to be located. From the news we are getting, it seems that we know pretty well where it is, and a plane the size of a large commercial passenger jet is not an easy thing to move around. Military people can be very ingenious, though. A basic part of advanced military training consists of presenting the soldier with large, cumbersome objects that need to be moved or hidden. (In the British Army's officer training, it's an upside-down tank.) It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that in the hours that have elapsed since the landing, some plane of equivalent size and shape — even, perhaps, a mockup — has been put into place on a runway, while the original has been towed off into a hangar somewhere under cover of darkness. Fighter-bomber planes travel very fast, and have precious little time to scrutinize their targets. A mockup doesn't have to be correct down to the last rivet.
Second, you need to know that any critical equipment that might still be intact is actually in place when you strike. How do we know this? Late reports say that Chinese military personnel entered the plane as soon as it landed. They could have stripped the thing by now. If this has indeed been done, we need to know it, and for sure this is not a piece of information the Chinese are going to give us for the asking.
Third, supposing the top-secret gear is not already in Beijing, you have to hit the damn plane and destroy that gear. Precision guided munitions are just the thing for bringing down a building or unzipping a bunker, but the aim here is to render into unrecognizable scrap some components no bigger than a home stereo system. We do not, actually, have that kind of precision from the air. Not even seriously obnoxious ordnance like fuel-air explosives can guarantee to do it, if the equipment is protected in a closed container.
All of which leads away from the remote option, and towards the personal: send a team in there to trash the plane manually and intimately, with well-placed charges, after first carrying out an inspection to see what's been taken. The U.S. has plenty of special services units well capable of doing this job, and I hope a couple of them are undergoing some intensive training for the mission right now.
This suggestion, which I offer in dead earnest, is going to bring a couple of predictable responses. One, who the hell am I, some kind of armchair warrior, proposing that U.S. military personnel be put in harm's way? Two, am I crazy — trying to start a war with China?
On the first point, that's what military personnel are for, and they don't mind doing it. Mind? I was in London when Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982. Once word got out that Margaret Thatcher was going to send a task force to recover the islands, military men were knocking down doors in Whitehall trying to get on that task force. There were lines around the block. For one thing, when you've trained for years to do something, you very much want to show — show your comrades, show your superiors, show the world, show yourself — that you can actually do it. For another, if you're pursuing a career in the military, nothing lights up your résumé like a spell of combat experience. Military folk are just as keen on résumé-building as the rest of us.
On the second, the surest way to get into a war with China is to let them slip into a frame of mind where they under-estimate U.S. resolve. Talk to a Chinese — any Chinese, the people have been thoroughly brainwashed on this — about Taiwan. "Oh," they sneer, "Americans won't fight to defend Taiwan." That's why they're stuffing their side of the Straits of Formosa with ballistic missiles. Every war starts with someone's perception of someone else's weakness. Against whom would you, personally, be more likely to declare war: an enemy you believe to be weak and irresolute, or one for whose military boldness and prowess you have serious respect?
It would be salutary, at this point in a new administration, to give the Chinese a firm, clear demonstration that the U.S. most certainly will fight to defend her interests, to protect her secrets, and to rescue her people. (That last is another mission I very much hope is on the tarmac waiting for a green light by the time you read this.) China's behavior so far has been predictably arrogant and lawless. Chinese politicians are going around puffed up like poison toads with bogus indignation, emitting clouds of gassy bluster about the U.S. having "violated our air space." Fine: when you've been arrested, tried and found guilty of an offense, you might as well commit it. Let's show these gangsters what a real violation of Chinese air space looks like.
We all know — the Chinese Communists sure as hell knew — what the slogan of the Clinton administration was: FOR SALE. Well, here is a new slogan, for George W. Bush's America: DON'T MESS WITH THE U.S.
Follow-up. I got big emailbag in response to my piece on Junior ROTC, including many, many testimonials from JROTC graduates and parents about the character-building and self-discovery aspects of junior military training. Two highlights in particular, things I learned from readers that I didn't know when I wrote the piece:
- Many U.S. high schools ban military recruiters. Quote: "At least 600 schools ban military recruiting of all kinds. Fully one-quarter of America's 21,000 secondary schools place some sort of restriction on recruiting activities. And more than 4,000 refuse to share directory information such as phone numbers and addresses with military recruiters." That is from a fine, well-researched article by Alan W. Dowd in the current (April 2001) issue of American Legion Magazine. Amazing — and disgraceful.
- There is a private organization, The Young Marines, that gives youngsters a marine-type training from age as young as 8. (The more official MCJROTC operates only in high schools.) It's run by volunteers from the Marine Corps League, and, though my informant tells me they grudgingly accept some small subsidies for things like drug rehab, it is mostly government-free.