Lumbering Cold War relic carries latest equipment
From Washington's perspective, there are sound strategic reasons why Pentagon officials want Beijing to ensure their downed spy plane is returned from Hainan Island as quickly as possible.
The propeller-driven EP-3 plane may be a lumbering relic of the Cold War that has probed the region's skies for nearly 40 years, but it carries some of the US navy's most modern surveillance equipment.
'China would have nothing as advanced,' a Pentagon source said. 'The EPs are an old plane but they are a platform for equipment that is state of the art. That's why we want the thing home - and fast. Our lawyers are confident the plane has sovereign immunity. China will certainly be judged on how it responds to that.'
Operating out of the Kadena base on Okinawa in Japan, the planes routinely fly long-range missions, often with two different crews. They can fly for more than 12 hours at a stretch with a range of 4,800km, putting much of the region within reach.
At the time of Sunday's collision with a Chinese F-8 fighter, the plane was about 70 nautical miles southeast of Hainan Island, more than 1,600km from home base.
The plane's equipment, handled by a crew of 24, allows it to monitor submarines, ships and aircraft as well as listen to an array of electronic signals from land, including radar and military bases.
Given the sensitivity of the data, the crew have instructions to destroy much of the information in case of capture and even the equipment itself in extreme cases.
The South China Sea presents a particularly rich target for the spy planes and is a regular routine mission.
Sitting abreast some of the world's busiest sea lanes, Hainan is dotted with mainland military bases and missile installations, while the disputed Spratly Islands are home to facilities from five claimants, including Taiwan and Vietnam.
Russia still operates a large electronic surveillance base nearby from Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay.
It is understood the plane was monitoring exercises by Beijing's Xia-class ballistic missile submarine at the time it was intercepted by mainland jets.
Yesterday, the Washington Times reported that the EP-3 incident came a week after a March 24 encounter in the Yellow Sea near the Korean Peninsula in which a Chinese frigate closed to within 100 metres of an unarmed surveillance ship, the USS Bowditch, as it conducted ocean survey operations in the region.
Quoting US navy officials, the report said the Chinese frigate - the Jianghu III-class Huangshi - made 'aggressive and provocative manoeuvres' towards the Bowditch and told it not to operate within China's 'economic exclusion zone'.