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Secretary Rumsfeld Briefs on EP-3 Collision

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld
April 13, 2001 2:00 PM EDT

Friday, April 13, 2001 - 2:00 p.m. EDT

SEC. RUMSFELD: Good afternoon. As we welcome the return of the 24 crew members, I want to take a moment to reflect on the seven Americans who were killed in the helicopter crash in Vietnam during the search for the remains of Americans who had been killed during the Vietnam War. They will be returning to Hawaii this afternoon at 6:00 p.m. Eastern Time. They made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, and we must all be grateful for men and women in the armed services who willing put their lives at risk.

I thought what I would do this afternoon is to comment on four subjects. First, some thoughts on "spying" as opposed to "overt reconnaissance" and "surveillance" -- and there is a difference. Second, to make some remarks about the collision that took place. I had occasion to speak with Lieutenant Shane Osborn yesterday morning on the phone and get a first-hand report. Third, I'd like to make a couple of comments about some prior interceptions and some U.S. demarches and how they were handled, and I have a brief video to show. And last, I would like to comment on three examples of other nations' aircraft landing on U.S. facilities and how they were handled, which was notably different.

First, with respect to spying. The dictionary suggests that it means to observe secretly and closely, reconnaissance means to inspect or explore an area, and surveillance means to observe closely. Our EP-3 was flying an overt reconnaissance and surveillance mission in international airspace in an aircraft clearly marked, "United States Navy." It was on a well-known flight path that we have used for decades. Many countries perform such flights, including China.

Now, as to the collision: For the past 12 days we've heard the People's Republic of China and the People's Liberation Army's version. Our crew was detained during that period, and we were not able to hear first-hand the facts as to what actually took place. You'll recall there were two key issues.

One issue was as to whether or not the EP-3 had made a turn into the fighter aircraft. The answer is it did not. It was flying straight and level. It was on autopilot, and it did not deviate from a straight and level path until it had been hit by the Chinese fighter aircraft, at which point it made a -- the autopilot went off and it made a steep left turn and lost some 5,000 to 8,000 feet of altitude as the crew attempted to regain control.

Second, with respect to the airspace -- the Chinese airspace being entered: It is well-understood in international agreements that if an aircraft is in distress that it broadcast that on the accepted international channels.

The pilot made a decision to head towards Hainan Island. I am told that he -- they made, the crew made, some 25 to 30 attempts to broadcast Mayday and distress signals, and to alert the world, as well as Hainan Island, that they were going to be forced to land there.

The other Chinese fighter aircraft was in close proximity to the United States Navy EP-3. One would assume they were in contact with their airfield.

The plane proceeded in on a -- perpendicular to the runway, made a 270-degree turn, so that everyone on the ground and in the air would be aware that they were in distress and making an emergency landing.

When they landed, they were greeted with armed troops, so I suspect that the people at the airfield knew they were coming.

It -- the pilots in the aircraft and the crew in the aircraft were not able to hear well, because the collision had caused pieces of metal to perforate the fuselage of the aircraft, and the noise in the aircraft was such that it made it very difficult for them to hear anything. And therefore, they really could not be aware as to whether or not their distress signals had been acknowledged.

As you may have read, there was damage to the elevators and the ailerons. The damage to the nose cone you have seen in the photographs. An antenna as wrapped around the tail. One engine was out. Another engine was damaged. A propeller was damaged.

So the question is, what caused the collision? This is not an unusual practice to fly these reconnaissance flights. The United States has done it hundreds of times. At least six countries fly reconnaissance missions in Asia, including China. There was nothing new or different about the mission on March 31st. What is new is that the Chinese pilots had been maneuvering aggressively against our aircraft in recent months. I mentioned the video we have that shows one such encounter, and I'll show it in a minute.

We were sufficiently concerned about the behavior of the Chinese aircraft, the United States government was, that the concerns were raised in a formal protest, both in Beijing and in Washington, D.C. back in December -- I believe it was in December -- December 28th, in the prior administration, where they called upon the People's Republic of China and the PLA to "look into the matter and to prevent its reoccurrence and to ensure that all freedoms and rights under international law for the use of the sea and airspace was not infringed in the future." So the People's Republic of China was well aware, as a result of that demarche.

And I think possibly it would be a good time to show the video, Craig [select (28k) (56k) or (cable)]. This is a Chinese aircraft, very similar to the one that crashed, and it took place in January -- I believe January 24th, does it say? Yeah. And you can see the fighter aircraft coming up. The voices are the American pilots, crew. (Radio dialogue.) You might pause there, for a second.

What he's talking about is a plane comes up underneath and the jet wash jars the slower, more stable, bigger aircraft and causes turbulence that throws the plane around. That's when they use the word "thump." Okay, you can go ahead. (Video resumes.)

Q Is that a hand-held camera?

SEC. RUMSFELD: I don't know. In a minute, you'll see the propeller of the EP-3, and you'll get a sense of exactly where that Chinese fighter was. Here's the pilot.

Q (Inaudible.)

SEC. RUMSFELD: I don't know for sure.

Q (Inaudible.)

SEC. RUMSFELD: Well -- save it. (Radio dialogue continues.) Look at the plane's mushy behavior. You can see he's flying at a very slow speed for a fighter aircraft. (Radio dialogue.) Those planes are not designed to fly at 250 knots. (Radio dialogue.) You notice, there's a propeller; you can see how close it was, and you can see the angle of attack on the fighter aircraft. He's trying to fly much slower than he's supposed to be flying, and as a result his nose is kind of -- (inaudible). (Radio dialogue.)

Q Was there any attempt to communicate back and forth during this time?

SEC. RUMSFELD: There were some hand signals -- (laughter) -- and to my knowledge -- (pause, laughter). No, no. No, no.

Q We've seen that picture; it looks internationally identifiable, that hand signal.

SEC. RUMSFELD: The answer to the question as to whether or not that was a specific aircraft, it did have the same number. People in navies frequently fly the same aircraft or different aircraft, and so how -- one cannot know of certain knowledge, even though the number of the aircraft may be similar. As a former Navy pilot, I've flown lots of different planes with different numbers.

Q Do you suspect it's the same pilot?

SEC. RUMSFELD: I don't do suspicions.

Q The voice on the tape was one of our guys at the time that the tape was taken?

SEC. RUMSFELD: That's correct.

Q Mr. Secretary, do you want questions as you go along, or do you want to wait till you're finished?

SEC. RUMSFELD: Oh, let's make it a surprise at the end.

A few more comments. In this instance of the collision on the end of March and the first of April, our aircraft was in international airspace. The F-8 pilot, who later hit our aircraft, made two aggressive passes at the EP-3. On one pass, he came within an estimated three to five feet of the aircraft. On the third pass, he approached too fast and closed on the EP-3 and then flew into the propeller of the outer engine. This occurred some 70 nautical miles from Hainan. The F-8 broke into two, plunged into the sea. And the collision caused the nose cone of the EP-3 to break away and damage the second engine and a propeller on the right side of the aircraft, and to send pieces of metal through the fuselage.

Why did the Chinese pilot act so aggressively? It is clear that the pilot intended to harass the crew. It was not the first time that our reconnaissance and surveillance flights flying in that area received that type of aggressive contact from interceptors.

We had every right to be flying where we were flying. They have every right to come up and observe our flight. What one does not have the right to do, and nor do I think it was anyone's intention, is to fly into another aircraft. The F-8 pilot clearly put at risk the lives of 24 Americans.

A comment about some prior interceptions.

In recent months there have been 44 PLA interceptions of U.S. surveillance and reconnaissance flights off the coast of China. Six of these were within 30 feet; two were within 10 feet. They occurred on 17 and 19 December, 24 and 30 January, 21 March, and on April 1st or the 28th, depending on the date when they hit our aircraft. So the day of the collision occurred well after the December demarche and protest by our government. So, clearly, they were not unaware of this behavior.

Let me just make a comment about several other reconnaissance flights or, I should say, instances where one nation's aircraft landed at another nation's airport, but without permission and because of some sort of emergency.

On February 27, 1974, a Soviet AN-24 reconnaissance aircraft was low on fuel and made an emergency landing at Gambell Airfield in Alaska. The crew remained on the aircraft overnight. They were provided space heaters and food. They were refueled the next day and they departed. The crew was not detained and the aircraft was not detained.

On April 6, 1993, a Chinese civilian airliner declared an in-flight emergency and landed in Shemya, Alaska, in the United States. It was apparently a problem of turbulence; very, very severe turbulence to the point that two people died, dozens were seriously injured, and the plane made an emergency landing on the U.S. airfield. The aircraft was repaired and refueled without charge, and it departed.

On 26 March, 1994, Russian military surveillance aircraft, monitoring a NATO anti-submarine warfare exercise, was low on fuel and made an emergency landing at Thule Air Base in Greenland. It was on the ground about six hours, the crew was fed, the aircraft was refueled and it departed.

Now, I mention these to point out that reconnaissance flights have been going on for decades. They are not unusual. They are well- understood by all nations that are involved in these types of matters. And in similar situations, nations have not detained crews and they have not kept aircraft.

I'd be happy to respond to questions.

Q Mr. Secretary, what can you tell us about what the crew was able to destroy in terms of intelligence data and equipment on board that plane before the Chinese boarded?

And could you also provide us a little more detail -- you've talked about -- they were greeted by armed guards. Can you fill in the blanks there? Tell us how the Chinese treated the American crew. And were they forced off the plane at gunpoint?


SEC. RUMSFELD: With respect to the gear, the crew has a checklist. They went through that checklist and did an excellent job of doing everything that was, I believe, possible in the period of time they had.

With respect to the guards coming aboard the aircraft, they boarded the aircraft, they were armed, and they invited the crew off the aircraft.

Q That sounds like a diplomatic answer, Mr. Secretary. Were they in fact forced off the aircraft at gunpoint?

SEC. RUMSFELD: I do not know if the guns were even taken out of the holsters.

Q And when you say -- if I could follow up there, when you say "excellent job," are you satisfied that the crew was able to destroy enough of that data and equipment that it could not be of any intelligence help to the Chinese?

SEC. RUMSFELD: The crew is being debriefed, and what we know at this present time is that they succeeded in doing a major portion of their checklist.

Q Mr. Secretary --

Q Mr. Secretary, what is China saying about the return of the aircraft?

Q Mr. Secretary -- just a moment please; he recognized me. Thank you. Mr. Secretary -- sorry. At the Rose Garden yesterday, or at departure for Texas, the president took a much harder line, now that the 24 are free. And now here you are, one day later, taking what is obviously a very hard line. Does this signify a very tough approach now between U.S. and China, and a change in our relations?

SEC. RUMSFELD: Well, without -- I mean, I wouldn't characterize the president's position as a hard line at all. I thought he was very accurate and very precise and very forceful and correct. And I agree with him. I don't characterize what I'm saying as anything other than the facts.

The reality is that the People's Republic of China for 12 days has been characterizing the collision in a way that is different from what our crew has reported to me and what I have characterized it to you today. And those are facts.

That isn't -- there's no spin. There's nothing -- there's no adjectives involved. It is simply a factual presentation of what took place.

The controlled press in China has been characterizing it the way that we have heard repeatedly on television and in our media. And I think that it's important for the people of the United States and the people of the world to hear what actually took place. So I am simply here describing what took place.

Q Well, a follow-up --

Q Mr. Secretary?

Q Mr. Secretary?

Q A follow-up, please, gentlemen.

I understand what you're saying. But the president did say yesterday he's going to have his trade representative take -- or express to the Chinese his displeasure in the so-called harassment or the flying close to our flights. And you've come down today and spelled out a four-part scenario spelling out your position very well, but it's different than what we've been hearing up till now, and we just wonder if that signifies a major change?

SEC. RUMSFELD: Well, look, the crew has just been released; we've had a chance to debrief them. I am reporting what took place.

Q Mr. Secretary, given the fact that the plane may not be able to repair, and given the fact that most -- you said a major portion of the destruction of classified, sensitive data had taken place, how important is it for the United States to get that plane back?

SEC. RUMSFELD: The EP-3 aircraft is United States property. It was worth in excess of $80 million. As the president has indicated from the outset, Secretary Powell, that subject will be front and center at the April 18th meetings, just as it has been every single day since the crew landed in China.

Q Mr. Secretary, you have laid out a military case here, very compelling, that this was a known, credible threat to you well in advance of the day this incident occurred; it was something that the military clearly contemplated and knew about. This is an aircraft, our aircraft, that has no defensive capability -

SEC. RUMSFELD: Unarmed. You're exactly right.

Q Correct. So if you knew this threat was there, why did you not send our plane with some escort or some patrol? Why did you let them go, essentially, with all due respect, as sitting ducks? And what are you going to do to give future flights some defensive capability?

SEC. RUMSFELD: Well, first, let me say that the reconnaissance and surveillance is not new; it's normal. I don't know quite what the word is, but a pattern, a rhythm, develops. When the United States and the Soviet Union would conduct reconnaissance and surveillance flights, just as the Untie States and the People's Republic of China have, the pilots go out, they get on their track, they expect to be intercepted, they are frequently intercepted; there frequently is a period where there is some sort of hand signals or communications between them, and they go about their business. There is no reason to believe that suddenly the pattern or rhythm of planes flying surveillance and reconnaissance flights and their being intercepted is going to end up in some pilot crashing into another airplane. The airplane --

Q But in fact --

SEC. RUMSFELD: Excuse me. The airplane was not shot down. It was clearly an accident. You've got to know that no pilot intentionally takes his horizontal stabilizer and sticks it in the propeller of an EP-3. He did not mean to do that. I am certain of that.

Q Do you think there needs to be any additional, given China's -- since last December, their increasing aggression that you have described and you knew about -- do you think there needs to be any additional defensive or additional capability for U.S. reconnaissance, or is it going to be business as usual for U.S. flights?

SEC. RUMSFELD: Well, we -- I don't want to characterize reconnaissance flights, except to say what the president and the secretary of State have said, and that is that, needless to say, the United States will continue to conduct reconnaissance and surveillance flights. We need to do so for the safety of our forces and we need to do it for the interests and benefit of our friends and allies in the region.

(Cross talk.)

SEC. RUMSFELD: Just a second. Back here.

Q Could you give us some examples of the kind of reconnaissance that China does in that region? Do they overfly our carriers, in which case, do we typically respond with interceptors as well?

SEC. RUMSFELD: I don't know that I'm in a position to characterize the patterns, other than the more recent months, and to go back over a period of a year and look at what they've done with respect to ships and aircraft, I can't characterize it for you.

Q Do they do it at all for our ships?

SEC. RUMSFELD: Oh, there have been, clearly, instances over the years where ships and aircraft are intercepted in one way or another, but not collided with.

Q Mr. Secretary, you've had the videotape since January 24th. Why was it not brought out earlier, say, during the time of the tension? And is the presentation you've made today, does it essentially mirror what the Chinese are going to see on April 18th when senior DOD officials sit down and raise the questions that President Bush talked about the other day? Is this essentially the same presentation the Chinese are going to get?

SEC. RUMSFELD: Well, I had not seen the video until earlier this week, and it seemed to me that it is an appropriate thing for people to see. You end up getting a feel for the difficulty of the situation, with a propeller-driven aircraft flying at a relatively low speed and a supersonic jet trying to operate in close proximity to it. I used to teach formation flying, and it's hard enough when the aircraft are similar, than when they're that different, it is very difficult. It seems to me that it was appropriate to show it at this time because it gives a sense of what was taking place up there, and very likely a situation similar to what actually caused the collision.

With respect to the meeting on the 18th, the agenda is now being prepared, of course, by both sides, and both sides are considering who their representatives will be and fashioning an agenda.

Q Mr. Secretary, was the subject of Taiwan arms sales brought up by either side in the talks to free the crew?

SEC. RUMSFELD: Not to my knowledge.

Q So we, the United States didn't --

SEC. RUMSFELD: But I wouldn't have known. I mean, it would have been something that would have happened, presumably at -- the only place there were talks were in Beijing, and so I don't know.

Q Do you think that this whole incident is another argument in favor of greater arms sales to Taiwan?

SEC. RUMSFELD: All those are issues for the president. He'll be addressing those kinds of issues.

Q Mr. Secretary, you mentioned that these flights are routine. But in fact, there had been an increase in them in the recent months, such that the Chinese also complained to us. Can you explain what it was they were complaining about, what they wanted, and also why we had an increase in these months?

SEC. RUMSFELD: What increased was the number of interceptions by the Chinese.

There hasn't been a flat pattern over years. They tend to be spikes, and they go up and down. It's just that in -- since December and January -- in March they seem to have gone up somewhat, but I can't explain why.

Q Mr. Secretary?


Q Could you say anything about the behavior of the second F-8 pilot, particularly after the collision? And did he do anything to indicate to the pilot of the EP-3 that perhaps he was cleared to land at Hainan? Did he pass over the field before him?

SEC. RUMSFELD: I have no first-hand -- I did not raise that question with the pilot when I spoke to him on the phone. What I know of it was that he did not come in close proximity to the EP-3, and that he did accompany, whether preceded or followed -- I think followed -- the EP-3 as it proceeded there. I have heard, but I have not validated with the pilot, that he may have made a pass over the field, indicating that that's where to go. And I have heard that the second aircraft landed after our aircraft landed.

Q Mr. Secretary, is China demanding compensation for the release of the EP-3?

SEC. RUMSFELD: The diplomatic pieces are being handled by the Department of State, and I don't know the answer to that question. I purposely made a decision early on that it strikes me that it's best not to have six, eight, 10, or 12 hands on the steering wheel. And, as a result, I have avoided getting into the business of the diplomatic side because, as you could all tell, it's very nuanced, and meanings of words became quite important and even translations of words became important. And it struck me that I would leave all of that to Secretary Powell, who I did, and he handled it very well, in my judgment.

Q But do you have any sense of what's holding up the return of the return of the plane now --

SEC. RUMSFELD: (Chuckles.) Well --

Q -- since you said the United States has been seeking it since day one.

SEC. RUMSFELD: Well, there's no question in my mind but that one of the things holding it up is they're accessing that aircraft to see what they can learn.

Q Mr. Secretary, can you tell us what the pilot told you about his treatment or the treatment of other crewmembers while in captivity?

SEC. RUMSFELD: I did not talk to the pilot on that subject, but everything I saw in the diplomatic traffic suggested that they were treated not incorrectly.

Q Mr. Secretary?

SEC. RUMSFELD: Yes, sir.

Q You say that it's your best judgment -- or that the crew has said that they've gone through most of the destruct checklist. Assuming they did that, will this aircraft still be intelligence importance and usefulness to the Chinese? And if so, have you done -- has there been a workup on a damage assessment and what the Chinese can gain, and how much that will compromise our own intelligence- gathering capabilities?

SEC. RUMSFELD: There is no question but that the United States government has made a very careful review. And that is part of the debriefing as to what, if anything, might have been compromised, and taken steps to avoid having that damage our country.

(Cross talk.)

STAFF: Just one or two more, please.


Q You're undergoing a major defense review at the moment. One of the issues of the defense review is where the U.S. should allocate its resources in terms of military personnel and gear. What, if any, conclusions have you reached about whether or not there are adequate U.S. resources in the Pacific region, given the rising power of the Chinese military?

SEC. RUMSFELD: We are still at the stage in the review where it's moving along very well. The numbers of studies are moving along very well. We have not laced them together and drawn specific conclusions, nor have I had an opportunity to visit in detail with President Bush, which we will be doing over the coming weeks with the elements that will come out of the studies.

Q Mr. Secretary, you said that you've left this to the diplomats. Is there any -- but in this meeting that's coming up next week, won't the Pentagon be taking a lead role? And is there any possibility that you yourself might travel to Beijing?

SEC. RUMSFELD: What I said was not that we've left this up to the diplomats, but what I've said is that I believe very strongly that in a sensitive negotiation we ought to have one set of hands on the steering wheel and not three or four. Three or four hands on the steering wheel drives the truck in the ditch. And Secretary Powell has been engaged in that. We have been involved throughout the process, as has been the entire National Security Council team, and the short answer with respect to the 18th is, while the delegations have not been selected, there's no doubt in my mind but that there'll be representatives from both the Department of Defense and the Department of State.

Q Mr. Secretary, would you put your flight instructor's hat for a second --

Q Ivan, come on!

Q Hm?

Q Come on!

Q I'm sorry, Barb, May I -- I had a quick follow-up. It's a nice question.

SEC. RUMSFELD: We'll do 'em both!

Q Thank you, Sir. (Pause.) Oh -- oh, me first?

SEC. RUMSFELD: Go ahead. Either one. (Laughter.)

Q (Chuckles.) I thought he was first. Are you concerned, given that there's been so much reluctance to say anything publicly, that by now coming out and contradicting the Chinese, you're diminishing the chances that they'll release the EP-3? What's the calculation here?

SEC. RUMSFELD: (Laughs.) Calculation. Interesting word. The plane -- the collision took place 12 days ago. Throughout 11 of those 12 days, there have been sensitive negotiations taking place for the release of the crew. Clearly, that is important to the United States, as well as to the 24 human beings involved. For 12 days, one side of the story has been presented. It seemed to me that, with the crew safely back in the United States, that it was time to set out factually what actually took place.

You know, ultimately the truth comes out, and notwithstanding efforts to the contrary, the reality is that what actually happens in life ultimately is known. And now is the time to begin that process. Clearly, that this will be presented again on the 18th in the meeting, and it will be discussed widely. And I think it's important for the world to understand exactly what happened so that they can take that into account in their calibrations.

Q Mr. Secretary, put your flight instructor's hat on for a second, talking about the airmanship. You say the prop on number one was damaged, another --

SEC. RUMSFELD: The engine was out on number one. The prop on the other side was damaged.

Q Okay. Was he able to feather the other prop or was it windmilling? We know he lost his Pitot tube and had no airspeed indicator. He had a piece of wire wrapped around his vertical stabilizer. How was he able to control it, by jockeying the throttles? Did he have any aileron control at all? Sounds like an incredible act of airmanship.

SEC. RUMSFELD: Yeah. We won't know until the debrief is complete. You're exactly right, it was a very difficult situation and it took a great deal of effort to get it stabilized on a path that they could enter the airport. I'm trying to think where I heard it. Having lost the Pitot tube, they clearly were without specific information as to altitude and airspeed and, therefore, they were undoubtedly using aircraft attitude and feel and throttle settings to make the judgments, and did a pretty good -- darn good job of it.

Q You don't know if the prop was windmilling, though, or if he was able to --

SEC. RUMSFELD: I heard one was, but I don't know the answer to that.

Q Is that why he didn't ditch?

SEC. RUMSFELD: I don't know the answer to that question.

Q Mr. Secretary, should he have taken -- after the first, or even after the second aggressive pass, should the pilot not have taken the plane off autopilot because of the danger of the situation and how close the Chinese pilot had come to the plane?

SEC. RUMSFELD: You know, second-guessing pilots is not a very good idea. Everyone will do it, we know that. But putting myself in his shoes, if you're flying along and you've done it before, and airplanes have come up previously and started mushing around beside you in one way or another, flying underneath you and coming up in front and thumping you, going off autopilot and manually flying the aircraft in some way to try to avoid a jet fighter, it seems to me is not a particularly brilliant idea. (Laughter.)

Q Thank you, sir.

(NOTE: Secretary Rumsfeld walks away from the podium.)

Q You said that they really wouldn't be aware of whether their distress signal had been heard. I just wonder whether the United States has any indication from other technical sources that the Chinese might have responded?

Q Happy Easter to you and your family, sir.

SEC. RUMSFELD: Thank you.

Q Are you going to show the video to the Chinese on the 18th, Mr. Secretary?

Q I think he said he would.

SEC. RUMSFELD: The answer to the question as to whether I might go along, that is very unlikely. I've got my hands full here.

Q Is the U.S. side going to show this video to the Chinese when they meet?

SEC. RUMSFELD: Oh, I think when the people are selected, they'll probably sit down and figure out how they want to approach it. I'm sure --

Q Would you recommend they show the video?

SEC. RUMSFELD: Oh, I'm sure the Chinese have similar videos. (Light laughter.) Thank you.

Q Thank you.


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