High time to automate those spies

Owing to the ‘special relationship’ that exists between the US and the UK, it is fortunate that none of the crew of the EP-3 intelligence-gathering platform was British.

Because I have become desensitised to the idea that government-owned listening devices are constantly sifting our phone calls, faxes and e-mails for information – whether it is of any relevance or not in the war on terrorism, drugs and organised crime – the sight of the 24 crew members of the US Navy EP-3 intelligence-gathering platform being paraded on Chinese television seemed curiously anachronistic.

In the era of the spy satellite that can supposedly tune into a scrambled Kremlin phone conversation, or pinpoint Ahmed Bin Laden on his mobile, why is it still necessary to cram so many vulnerable service personnel into an ageing, propeller-driven aircraft and have them fly into airspace that the country they’re spying on rabidly considers to be theirs and nobody else’s?

The fact is, the EP-3 mission was a highly specialised one requiring many experienced operators to extract and analyse elusive electronic signals and other forms of communication from the surrounding ether. It is a time-honoured mission that the US Air Force and Navy have practised for years – predominantly in the cold skies bordering the old Soviet Union.

Could the intelligence disaster that befell the EP-3 also have happened to UK service personnel? Absolutely. The RAF operates a handful of ageing Nimrod R1 electronic intelligence-gathering platforms that routinely patrol international airspace hoovering up the same kind of signals being sought by the EP-3.

Owing to the ‘special relationship’ that exists between the US and the UK in defence and intelligence-related matters, it is fortunate that none of the EP-3’s crew was British.

When, in 1960, Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 spyplane was shot down over Sverdlovsk, Russia, four of the pilots that took part in the CIA’s Soviet overflight operation were British – a fact that remained concealed for almost 30 years (and is still unacknowledged by the MoD).

Then, as now, the affair resulted in a deterioration in east-west relations. One US official has been quoted as saying that the US government considered the EP-3 to be expendable, but would have risked war to get its crew back.The moral of this story is that spy flights will continue, but they will become ever more automated to avoid the risk of a similar incident recurring.

This week, a USAF Northrop Grumman Global Hawk unmanned reconnaissance plane set an aviation record when it crossed the Pacific from California to Australia. It can loiter on-station longer than a manned platform and nobody worries about hostages, should one get shot down. Its stock, already high, will have shot up as a result of the EP-3 affair- in both the US and over here.