WASHINGTON - An Air Force jet flew along the northern Chinese coast on an electronic eavesdropping mission yesterday, the first spy flight since a Navy surveillance plane was damaged by a Chinese jet fighter last month and forced to make an emergency landing, a Pentagon official said.
Chinese officials, who had demanded that the United States end such missions during a tense 11-day standoff, had no comment.
The Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance jet flew from Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa, the Pentagon official said. It flew on a route far from the southern Chinese island of Hainan where the downed Navy EP-3E Aries II still sits on a military airfield.
There was no attempt by the Chinese to intercept the U.S. plane, the official said, and there were no U.S. fighter jets escorting the aircraft on its daylight mission.
Pentagon officials said that by keeping to the northern Chinese coast, the U.S. flight could avoid the aggressive Chinese military pilots based on Hainan and make it easier for U.S. fighter aircraft on Okinawa to respond in the event of an incident with the Chinese.
There was no indication when other spy flights, designed to pick up military intelligence, would take place, said the official, who requested anonymity. "We don't announce the timetable of surveillance flights," the official said.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer declined to confirm that the spy flights had resumed.
"It has always been the position of the United States that it is our prerogative and right to fly in international airspace to preserve the peace by flying reconnaissance missions." he said. "But I'm not going to entertain any questions about any specific missions."
Pentagon officials have said the Navy plane was outside the internationally recognized 12-mile territorial limit when the collision with the Chinese fighter occurred, but China claims a 200-mile economic zone off its coast.
Like the Navy's turboprop EP-3E, the Air Force RC-135 - essentially a military version of the Boeing 707 - is equipped with sophisticated listening gear, radar and antennae. It can pick up telephone and radio conversations, the distinctive emissions from radar installations and the telemetry from missile tests.
It can travel more than eight hours without refueling and carry a crew of 25 to 35, including electronics experts and linguists.
The Navy turbo-prop was flying along the southern Chinese coast near Hainan Island on April 1 when two Chinese F-8 fighter jets intercepted it. One of the jets made three passes at the Okinawa-based plane, each time coming closer.
On the third pass, the Chinese jet caught its tail below the Navy plane's left wing and broke up. The Chinese pilot was killed and the Navy plane was severely damaged, plummeting about 5,000 feet, Pentagon officials said.
The Navy pilot, Lt. Shane Osborn, wrestled with the controls, declared a "mayday" distress signal over an international radio frequency and made an emergency landing on Hainan island. The 24 crew members were held for 11 days, and Pentagon officials said spy satellites pictured the Chinese carrying equipment off the plane.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in a television interview Sunday that he believed the Chinese would release the Navy plane. Technicians from Lockheed Martin, the plane's manufacturer, have inspected the aircraft and determined that it could be repaired and ready to fly in the next several days, a Pentagon official said.