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Bureaucratic inertia and world war three

Chalk me up as a China-dove – the evidence backs a close relationship between trade and peace, and there’s no bigger trade than Chinese trade. So this short but revealing anecdote, buried, inexplicably, at the bottom of Seymour Hersh article about cyber-war, puts stories of military belligerence into US domestic political context. Few events fixed in the public mind potential military hostility with China as the Hainan Island incident. Hersh’s tale, if true, suggests that incident and the reconnaissance flights over China which preceded it were of bureaucratic, rather than strategic, origin.

…there are always unintended consequences of military activity—some that may take years to unravel. Ironically, the story of the EP-3E aircraft that was downed off the coast of China provides an example. The account, as relayed to me by a fully informed retired American diplomat, begins with the contested Presidential election between Vice-President Al Gore and George W. Bush the previous November. That fall, a routine military review concluded that certain reconnaissance flights off the eastern coast of the former Soviet Union—daily Air Force and Navy sorties flying out of bases in the Aleutian Islands—were redundant, and recommended that they be cut back.

“Finally, on the eve of the 2000 election, the flights were released,” the former diplomat related. “But there was nobody around with any authority to make changes, and everyone was looking for a job.” The reality is that no military commander would unilaterally give up any mission. “So the system defaulted to the next target, which was China, and the surveillance flights there went from one every two weeks or so to something like one a day,” the former diplomat continued. By early December, “the Chinese were acting aggressively toward our now increased reconnaissance flights, and we complained to our military about their complaints. But there was no one with political authority in Washington to respond, or explain.” The Chinese would not have been told that the increase in American reconnaissance had little to do with anything other than the fact that inertia was driving day-to-day policy. There was no leadership in the Defense Department, as both Democrats and Republicans waited for the Supreme Court to decide the fate of the Presidency.

The predictable result was an increase in provocative behavior by Chinese fighter pilots who were assigned to monitor and shadow the reconnaissance flights. This evolved into a pattern of harassment in which a Chinese jet would maneuver a few dozen yards in front of the slow, plodding EP-3E, and suddenly blast on its afterburners, soaring away and leaving behind a shock wave that severely rocked the American aircraft. On April 1, 2001, the Chinese pilot miscalculated the distance between his plane and the American aircraft.


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