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An editorial

A few words about this whole American plane colliding with the Japanese plane thing... I am not a diplomat. I am not a statesman. I am not wise in political ways. These are just my thoughts; they have no correlation to any official positions that I hold, nor are they related -- in any way -- to any of my employers. These are also not well-studied conclusions; they are just are my personal thoughts.

From our point of view, it seems that the Chinese pilot was clearly the aggressor. Our pilots claim that the plane was flying straight and level on autopilot and the Chinese pilot approached at high speeds, multiple times (getting as close as 3 feet from the left wing at one point). The third time, the Chinese pilot apparently misjudged his approach, which resulted in the crash.

This appears to be consistent with the facts that the Chinese plane is much more maneuverable than the American plane. Indeed, I know that if I was the pilot of the American plane, I'd be flying straight and level on computer autopilot for two reasons:

  • specifically so that I could claim that I was not the aggressor.

  • since any foreign pilot would be a variable (regardless of their degree of aggression or not), an unarmed plane only has one defense --
    be completely predictable and hope that the other plane doesn't hit you.

This only makes sense.

It would also be incredibly stupid for the plane to have been in Chinese airspace. While I certainly have no knowledge of that plane's specific mission, I find it hard to believe that such an electronically noisy plane (and therefore easily observable by the Chinese) would have intentionally ventured into Chinese airspace during their mission (i.e., before the collision) without permission when we are not at war with them and with no means of defense. So I find it hard to believe that they were not in international airspace. Did the skirt the border? Perhaps. But were they in Chinese airspace? I doubt it.

Is this really what happened? I would tend to think so. I know some US military pilots, and I'm pretty sure that their reactions would be pretty much what I said above.

But was it really the case? It certainly makes no sense for the American plane to intentionally swerve into the Chinese plane. But did the American plane unintentionally swerve into the Chinese plane? If so, the Chinese plane:

  • clearly must have been too close to the American plane for accepted safety limits (i.e., the Chinese pilot had no time to react to prevent the collision), or

  • was far enough away (i.e., should have had time to react), but the pilot was so unattentive that he didn't notice the American plane lumbering towards him

Either way, the Chinese pilot would share at least some of the fault.

So what really happened? It's hard to say, and I wonder if the public will ever really know what happened. There are multiple factors which influence any situation:

  • Take 10 people who were all direct eyewitnesses at the scene of an accident, and you'll still get multiple different versions of the story.

  • We (the public) accept pretty much whatever the media says, even though the media distorts just about every story reported.

  • And let's not forget that it is possible that the American government is covering up the details of the "real" story. As much as my patriotism doesn't want to acknowledge this fact, it certainly could be the case -- the scientist in me has to concede that point.

So what really happened? I don't know for sure, but I'm inclined to believe some form of what the American pilots claimed. Are all the details exactly right? Perhaps not. But what they say generally makes sense, whereas the Chinese version doesn't.

As for the Chinese accusations about how the American plane landed without permission; technically speaking, they are correct -- the American plane had no permission. But they also had no choice. I do believe the American pilots saying that they had broadcast mayday multiple times and did a 270 degree rotation around the field -- the international signal for "in distress and not in touch with the tower". The fact that the Chinese authorities didn't acknowledge these signals is something that they have not answered.

I initially shared my fellow citizens outrage that the Chinese keeping the plane.

But then someone reminded me of the fact that we did essentially the same thing a few years ago when a Russian pilot defected and landed a MiG in Japan. We examined that plane thoroughly before we sent it back to Russia -- in crates. So it's hard to fault China for doing what it did (in terms of keeping the plane). It is incredibly advanced and secret technology, and it literally fell into their possession.

Granted -- the situation is slightly different than what we did (someone gave it to us rather than a forced landing), but the larger picture is the same: an advanced piece of technology came into their possession that the owners did not intend to happen, and the owners want it back.

As for the technology itself, the crew has said that they were able to destroy all the sensitive stuff in the plane before the Chinese boarded. I'm quite sure that all their non-physical codes were able to be destroyed (computer records, access codes, etc.) as well as any code books and whatnot. Indeed, even if they hadn't, I'm quite sure that as soon as the plane announced its intention to land in China, Pacific Command started the process of changing all relevant codes. This is standard procedure -- event in the event of a possible compromise, all codes must be changed immediately. So I'm not concerned there.

But as for the machines that ran the plan, and the specific crypto devices and other kinds of secret technology on the plane -- I have no idea whether those kinds of things have self-destruct mechanisms that can be activated in the event of capture. I hope so. I'm sure the crew did their absolute best to render any technology in the plane unusable and unstudyable by the Chinese. They are all experts in their respective fields, and are intimately familiar with the machines that they fly with. We have to trust them. And I do; they apparently had at least 10-15 minutes while still in the air to potentially start the destruction process (although it's not clear that they could start the process until they landed; the plane was pretty badly crippled), and they apparently had about 15 minutes on the ground to complete these procedures.

So I have to concede here -- this is probably not outlandish for the Chinese to do. Especially when you look at the fact that we've done just about exactly the same thing. That plane is now just a pawn in the big chess game of foreign diplomacy, whether we like it or not.

That being said, I'm making a big assumption here: that the Chinese pilot did not intentionally hit the American plane so as to force it to land in China. This is a possibility, so I have to mention it, but I would think that the tensions between our countries were not strong enough (before the incident) to precipitate such an action. Indeed, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, so plan and execute such a maneuver and guarantee that the American plan would still be able to land (i.e., that it wouldn't be destroyed). Indeed, there are other ways of forcing a plane to land rather than a mid-air collision. So I don't think that China did this on purpose -- it doesn't make sense.

Even more importantly than the plane is the crew. I think that this is what most Americans (myself included) are most inflamed about.

Keeping the crew was quite stupid (that's a gut reaction there). Yes, I can see the Chinese's political reasons for keeping them (and I do think it was political more than anything else -- there's no military reason to keep them), but that doesn't stop me from being angry about it. They needed to silence the American version of the story while their own version was spoon-fed to their public (their media is under even tighter control than ours), keep bargaining leverage in the situation, save face while claiming to wait for an apology from the U.S., and delay as long as possible so that they could keep their scientists and technicians working on the plane.

It was also in their best interests to keep the crew safe and relatively comfortable until they were returned. Think about it: if they had harmed any of the crew and didn't eventually have them killed (or otherwise kept from communicating with American officials), the American story would come out eventually, which would have been a political disaster for China (particularly with the pending trade deals and UN stuff). The crew had to eventually be returned and in perfect health with no mistreatment.

Sure, the crew were questioned. That is to be expected. I'm also sure that the Chinese officials knew that they would get little to no new information from our crew, because I'm quite sure that unless the crew were drugged (or otherwise coerced, but as discussed above, physical violence was not an option), they wouldn't voluntarily give any sensitive information away.

They gambled that they could hold the American crew for quite a while before American government would take a hard line. And they were right. Will there be any reprocussions? Maybe. But certainly less than if they had injured/killed any of the crew. It's hard to see how a new president would be able to take a hard stance and have direct retributions against a foreign power, particularly when that president was insistent upon negotiation for the release of the crew.

That being said, I have to admit that I'm extremely happy that no military action was taken. It would have been a more-stupid-than-normal reason to go to war. Don't get me wrong --
the crew is very important -- you never leave a crewmember behind. But going to war over the fate of 24 people is just not good statistics. The old adage, "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" is highly relevant here; while I'm extremely happy that the crew is home safe, I think that they too (being members of the military) would have understood if the process had taken longer and/or gotten ugly. Military members assume a certain risk when defending the American freedom; we all know this and acknowledge it when we do our jobs. While everyone is happy that it didn't come to that in this case, it certainly could have.

All that said and done, I welcome home the crew of the our plane. Thanks for defending our country. It's said too infrequently, particularly when your everyday job can have you end up being held by a hostile foreign power. Thanks for keeping us free.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 14, 2001 10:06 AM.

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