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MARGARET WARNER: As the diplomacy between Washington and Beijing intensified today, more questions arose about the weekend collision between a U.S. reconnaissance plane and a Chinese fighter. For more on all this, we turn to Retired Admiral Eric McVadon, a former Navy pilot and U.S. Defense and naval attaché to China from 1990 to 1992; he is now a consultant. George Wilson, who covers defense issues for the “National Journal,” and Scott Silliman, a retired pilot and lawyer with the Air Force; he is now executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University Law School. Welcome to you all.
George, first bring us up to date on these reports about what exactly happened at the time of the collision. What do U.S. officials know about the collision, the accident that they aren’t ready to say publicly?
GEORGE WILSON: Well, my sources who have access to what information is available both secret and public, say that the leading theory is that this plane, this is a C-130J — but it’s similar in size and it’s also four propellers to the airplane that got in the collision which was a Lockheed P-3 filled with electronic gear — the leading theory is — this is an Italian fighter but it’s the same size as the Chinese fighter. It was under the plane.
When the fighter is underneath you like this you want to see where he is. It’s your blind spot. You tip your swing to look out this side; you tip your wing like that to look out that side. So the fighter was dangerously close. And when the plane tipped its wing to look or turn either way, this fighter went up this way. It was too close for comfort and very dangerous and it crashed into the nose and the propeller of the electronic warfare airplane.
This plane is bigger so the small plane lost, and it bounced off the bigger E P-3. And this plane struggled and made a landing on the Island of Hainan. And the interesting thing is that the Chinese cleared the runway. They were told it was an emergency. The pilot said mayday. So from pilot to pilot level this was a plane in distress in and the Chinese cooperated.
Diplomatically, everybody is trying to blame the other party. It’s a collision, but when you look at these two planes, you can make the argument, which the Pentagon does, this was a dump truck versus a bicycle or this was a sports car versus a truck. And a P-3 can’t maneuver sharply.
A fighter can do anything. And this was a hot dog pilot who got too closed and banged in our plane, bounced off and crashed. This happens. We harass other planes in this kind of game but it seems to me that the odds are that it was the Chinese pilot who was reckless.
MARGARET WARNER: What do you make of these reports, Admiral? I mean, you’ve flown planes similar to the U.S. reconnaissance plane.
REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.): Yes, I flew P-3′s for quite a number of years. Let me add one thing; it’s even harder for a P-3 to see the airplane below you about because the P-3 is a low wing airplane, and so you’re looking at the top of your wing; it’s an even worse situation. This is all plausible. There are other explanations but this is certainly – when I look at the damage that resulted — that this looks like very likely what happened.
MARGARET WARNER: I think we have some pictures of the damage to the plane. Maybe we could put those up and tell me what you see when you look at that. Well, we’ll go up to a minute. There we go.
REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.): Looking at the number one prop now. That is on the left wing of the outboard engine. Three of the blades are very badly damaged. That would have produced vibration and so forth, but of course, that is consistent with having hit the fighter airplane. Then I think we’ll probably see another picture of the nose. And you can see there that at one time or another, and we can’t be sure this came off immediately – so, remember, this young man is now having its airplane come apart, and we don’t quite know the timing, and when that came apart it was ingested by the number three engine on the right hand — starboard side of the airplane. And so he now had an emergency with two engines in severe difficulty.
MARGARET WARNER: Does this give more credence to the Chinese insistence that it was the U.S. plane that moved into the Chinese plane? I mean the Chinese ambassador said to Jim last night, let me get the exact words, the American plane tried to make a sudden turn and approach the Chinese plane.
REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.): That certainly may well have been the case. There could be all sorts of scenarios here; it’s trying to piece together like an automobile accident and see from the damage exactly what happened and so forth. Is it really important whether a PLA Navy captain and a U.S. Navy lieutenant might have either made mistakes or did something — was very prudent action in there and so it resulted in a collision? Of course, the Chinese airplane was very close to the American airplane, so I would have to attribute a considerable degree of blame — if one assigns it that way — to that sort of situation.
GEORGE WILSON: — the fighter plane is much more agile. You’d agree with that.
REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.): Yes, I do.
MARGARET WARNER: The Chinese jet is much more agile.
GEORGE WILSON: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: Colonel Scott Silliman, weigh in here legally. First of all, are there international rules that would governor a situation like there in assigning blame and if this scenario were or something like it were correct, who would be considered at fault?
COL. SCOTT SILLIMAN (Ret): Well, Margaret, we’ve got to start first with where the accident occurred. The Chinese have tried to make an argument that it occurred in their air space. That is clearly not the case.
MARGARET WARNER: They backed off from that now.
REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.): They have.
COL. SCOTT SILLIMAN (Ret.): Yeah. It clearly is an international air space and when the Navy plane actually started to descend to make its emergency landing, there is in the custom of the law the rule that an airplane is able to land at the nearest available field and will be treated with respect and representative of the state from which it comes.
It’s called the state aircraft or state vessel principle. Now, if we are assuming that this was an accident, regardless of how the ultimate facts show, then that aircraft and that crew — when they landed on Chinese territorial space — should have been given immunity and courtesy. And that obviously didn’t happen.
So, as far as the crew is concerned, right now, they are being detained and that is their status. They are certainly not prisoners of war, because we are not in any kind of armed conflict with China, but they are being held against their will. I should suggest that the Chinese could have a reasonable opportunity to at least interview the pilot of the aircraft — probably not the rest of the crew that were more involved in intelligence gathering but the pilot. But that has already been done and they are being held right now against the rule of law.
The plane itself is a little bit more difficult for the Americans to argue that it should be returned immediately. That is true that it’s a state aircraft and should be returned, but I think everyone will remember that back in 1976, Victor Valenco flew a Soviet MiG 25 to Japan and the same status should have been accorded that aircraft but it clearly wasn’t, and the Americans had an intelligence bonanza at that time, just as the Chinese are doing right now.
MARGARET WARNER: Is that the plane they returned in crates finally?
COL. SCOTT SILLIMAN (Re.): Yes, after a long period of time. So, in a way, if we try to argue that the plane should be returned immediately, there is a bit of hypocrisy in our argument.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me -
REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.): But that was a defector and not an emergency. And maybe that is an important distinction.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let’s go back now to this other issue that Colonel Scott Silliman raised, that the Chinese have said, which is that the U.S. plane entered Chinese air space illegally, didn’t ask for permission to land. Now, again, what is the Pentagon saying happened – and then I’ll turn to you for your experience in such situations.
GEORGE WILSON: Well, on background — they won’t say it publicly — the Chinese cleared the airfield for the emergency landing and they had gotten a radio messages from the stricken plane saying that they were in trouble.
MARGARET WARNER: Was this a general may day, may day, we are in trouble or a specific hey, we would like to come in, can we?
GEORGE WILSON: The latter.
MARGARET WARNER: It was the latter?
GEORGE WILSON: In other words, we would like to land at the field because we are badly damaged – and they, therefore cleared the runway. We know this I’m sure from photos or other intelligence. So from professional to professional it doesn’t seem to have been a problem. It’s from government to government that seems to be the problem.
REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.): George, I didn’t hear they had asked for percentage to land. As a matter of fact I’m hearing just the opposite complaint from the Chinese. Now, remember, the Chinese government is also playing to a domestic audience. So, they want to ensure that China is standing up and being treated with dignity and so forth, but as I understand it, what may have happened — once again, we’re not absolutely sure — is that they declared a may day and then proceeded to land at the airfield without contacting the tower.
And, of course, the Chinese would say certainly an EP-3, with all its eavesdropping, would have known the tower frequency, and so forth. Now, they will acknowledge that the young pilot had a lot going on but we are faced with this situation where I think maybe there is an opportunity here to say something about well, we regret also that specific permission to land was not obtained and the circumstances and so forth. These things put together where the regrets have been offered — it seems to me we might be coming together with a package that I think we should all be interested in.
COL. SCOTT SILLIMAN (Re.): Margaret, if I might add -
MARGARET WARNER: Yes, please.
COL. SCOTT SILLIMAN (Re.): In either case, in either scenario as far as how that aircraft approached the landing strip, the law would say the aircraft could land. The Chinese, in effect, gave implicit authority for it to land, so the law still protects that aircraft and that crew. But I do agree that now this incident has moved past the law and is almost purely diplomacy as far as how these two countries are going to resolve it.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. I want to look at one other thing, and get all three of you, so somewhat briefly here — finally the issue of interrogating the crew – first of all, George, what is known – what does the Pentagon know or do they know about is the crew being interrogated? Is all the crew being interrogated? Is a U.S. official present or not? What is going on?
GEORGE WILSON: Well, the first thing is that they believe that the destruction of the really sensitive stuff, decoding equipment, was accomplished because that only takes about one minute. And even though you are in an extremist – and trying to land an airplane – there would have been time, it seemed to me and to them, that the most sensitive stuff would have been wiped off the disk and the keys removed and a bunch of other procedures that you take care of first.
We don’t know what kind of interrogation there has been of the crew and the captain. I would suspect they would do like they do in the USS “Pueblo”, they would interrogate the captain and the crew and try and find out what they were doing and why. But I think it’s more of a propaganda effort at this point — a struggle for men’s minds — than it is to get some deep dark secret out of our airplane.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. So, Admiral McVadon, put yourself in the position of the crew members, what would be your instructions about what you could tell, should tell interrogators about what happened?
REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.): Well, let me emphasize , as the Colonel said, I don’t think we are looking at a prisoner of war situation. It’s not that you gave give name rank and serial number. Obviously, you do not disclose qualified information. So one is going to have some balance in-between that as to what you say. But let me mention with respect to interrogate gauges of the crew. Of course, what the Chinese are saying is they are conducting an investigation of the accident.
MARGARET WARNER: Yes.
REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.): And once more, let’s look for the opportunities here. And let me drop it, leave it at that.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. And, Scott Silliman, your view sort of as a legal matter – first of all, what governs this — but are there internally agreed kind of procedures or guidelines for what kind of questioning is appropriate and what isn’t and what these service men and women should say.
COL. SCOTT SILLIMAN (Re.): Well, there are no precise guidelines as far as what the crew can be asked. As I mentioned before, I think the pilot could legitimately be asked what happened in the air, as far as investigating the accident. Beyond that, as far as the mission of the aircraft, any questions about the technological aspects of the mission, those are clearly not allowed. But again, the question is the United States has difficulty in dealing with how you respond to the Chinese — if in fact they are asking those types of questions. But there aren’t any real rules. The Geneva Convention doesn’t apply here. And we are dealing basically with the protocols between the two states.
MARGARET WARNER: And does the U.S. have any right to insist that a U.S. official be present during the questioning?
COL. SCOTT SILLIMAN (Re.): Well, I think we would certainly request that and I think custom would indicate that there should be someone from the government there present while the crew are being questioned but, again, there is nothing specifically that we can demand as far as particular rights under the law.
MARGARET WARNER: All right.
REAR ADM. ERIC McVADON (Ret.): Margaret, let me add one quick note. There are a lot of noises coming from a lot of people – high level, medium level and so forth — that it’s time to put this incident behind us, I’m cautiously optimistic.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Time to put this behind us; thank you all three very much.