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Historical EP-3 Incident in China's Airspace

Updated on January 1, 2015

EP-3 Naval Recon Plane


Lingshui Airfield, EP-3


EP-3 Reconnaissance Plane Crash

The historical crash of a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane and a F-8 fighter jet belonging to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) spurred tension and caused repercussions for future U.S. aircraft to fly near or within Chinese airspace (Kan 2001, Summary). The collision took place in April 2001 over the South China Sea and resulted in the death of the Chinese fighter pilot and a potentially unapproved landing of the U.S. Navy EP-3 plane at the Lingshui airfield (Kan 2001, Summary).

The incident brought about conflicting accounts of what truly took place and ensnared the U.S. and China into a web of disagreements. China argued that the EP-3 reconnaissance plane entered into China’s territorial waters, therefore allowing them to react by launching two F-8 fighter jets to tail the plane (Donnelly 2004, 28). Beijing claims that the reconnaissance plane and the fighter jets were flying level to one another and headed in the same direction when the US aircraft “suddenly veered at a wide angle towards the Chinese planes” (Donnelly 2004, 29). Consequently, the U.S. plane crashed into the back of the fighter jet causing it to crash into the ocean, killing the Chinese pilot (Donnelly 2004, 29).

The U.S. argued that the EP-3 plane was conducting surveillance over the South China Sea when two Chinese fighter jets began to follow the plane. The U.S. claims one fighter pilot three passes toward the left wing of the EP-3 plane and on the third pass the “Chinese pilot misjudged the distance between the two planes and collided with the left wing” (Donnelly 2004, 29). The U.S. asserts that the EP-3 was operating on autopilot when it crashed into the fighter jet. Once the collision took place, the EP-3 crewmembers made several “Mayday distress signals” to alert the Chinese that they had to land within their airspace (Donnelly 2004, 29). The unfortunate collision created ongoing tension between the U.S. and China as each state blames each other for the damage, causing changes to future U.S. collection techniques and tactics. For example, the collision of the EP-3 resulted in the Chinese holding the U.S. plane and the crewmembers for eleven days before China finally released them.

The U.S. claims that China exploited the down aircraft to collect intelligence on the capabilities and limitations of the aircraft as well as the information found inside of the aircraft. Due to this realization, the U.S. intelligence community has attempted to limit the amount of sensitive data found on aircraft that could potentially be captured by an adversary nation (Kan 2001, 28). Additionally, “destruction devices” have been created to further impede the loss of critical intelligence (Kan 2001, 28). Such regulations and protocols are necessary to prevent the loss of classified information and to secure U.S. national security interests.

Video Footage of EP-3 Incident

Narratives on the Collision

UAV, MQ-1 Predator


Led to The Development of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)

This was the third occurrence since the 1990’s, which could potentially damage diplomatic ties between the U.S. and China as well as thwart future U.S. reconnaissance missions or lead to the refinement and development of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). As previously mentioned the U.S. EP-3 collision is not the first reconnaissance mission to take place in international airspace, causing strain on the U.S.’s international relations. The U.S. has been collecting intelligence through airborne reconnaissance since the 1940s and has had over 40 surveillance aircraft shot down abroad (Kan 2001, 26). The U.S. relies on the EP-3 aircraft to monitor adversary military forces and their intentions. The U.S. military profoundly admires the EP-3 reconnaissance planes and has been pushing to expand the fleet (Kan 2001, 30). As a result of the collision, there has been significant impacts put on the EP-3 fleet, future airborne surveillance missions and the development of UAVs. The incident caused a nine percent reduction in collection efforts within the South China Sea and placed added stress on the EP-3 operational aircraft to absorb the operational tempo (Kan 2001, 32). The United States has been forced to compensate for the loss of the EP-3 aircraft by supplementing the collection effort with other electronic reconnaissance aircraft and satellites (Kan 2001, 31).

The EP-3 collision also temporarily impacted the procedures for future airborne surveillance. The incident sparked ongoing debate regarding the correct procedures for U.S. and Chinese aircraft to operate in and around each other’s borders (Kan 2001, 32). Future surveillance operations may result in new aerial protocol that requires the U.S. to maintain a greater distance when conducting surveillance missions and also to maneuver in a safer manner when Chinese aircraft are involved. This collision could be seen as a precedent for other nations to seek similar rules and protocols (Kan 2001, 32). Furthermore, the collision generated safety concerns suggesting that future aerial reconnaissance missions may have to have fighter jets as an escort once they approach international waters or territories. This new requirement would significantly impact U.S. military forces and their deployment cycles, “operational tempo, and force-structure” as well as increase the involvement of military personnel in aerial reconnaissance missions (Kan 2001, 33).

Due to the operational strain put on the EP-3 fleet, the U.S. looked toward the option of supplementing its SIGINT collection effort by potentially enhancing and developing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) as a replacement for the EP-3 or similar manned reconnaissance aircraft (Kan 2001, 32). As of 2001, the presidential administration began to refine U.S. defense policy by promoting the advantages of the UAV’s over manned aircraft, since UAV’s place less operational risk on the crew involved (Kan 2001, 32). The collision ultimately stimulated discussion and debate regarding the development and implementation of UAVs.

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End Remarks

The EP-3 collision with a Chinese F-8 fighter jet generated continuous debate between the U.S. and China, placing strain on their diplomatic relationship, but also on the future collection of U.S. intelligence. The incident caused several implications throughout the U.S intelligence community and the U.S. armed forces, placing continuous operational stress on the small EP-3 fleet, future airborne surveillance missions, which led to the development of military escorts and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Kan 2001, 31).


Donnelly, Eric. 2004. The United States-China EP-3 Incident: Legality and RealPolitik. Conlflict & Security Law 9, no. 1; 25-42.

Kan, Shirley, A. 2001. China-U.S. Aircraft Collision Incident of April 2001: Assessments and Policy Implications. CRS Report for Congress.


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