China May Be the Big Winner in the Pentagon’s Newest Spying Scandal
The secrets a U.S. Navy officer is suspected of slipping to China could ground America’s most important spy planes just when Washington needs them most.
The U.S. naval officer at the center of a burgeoning spy scandal may not have simply betrayed his country: He may have also helped China compromise Washington’s most-sophisticated tool for tracking Beijing’s submarines, ships, and planes.
The surveillance aircraft potentially exposed in the espionage case are America’s high-tech “eyes in the sky” in the western Pacific, the EP-3E Aries II and P-8A Poseidon, which are equipped with sensors and radar that allow them to scoop up the electronic communications of Chinese forces and monitor their movements.
The Aries, which has undergone significant upgrades in recent years, delivers “near real-time” signals intelligence and full motion video,according to the Navy. The aircraft’s sensors and dish antennas — their range is classified — can pick up distant electronic communications, allowing the U.S. military to pick up on any possible threats and eavesdrop on foreign militaries.
The Poseidon, meanwhile, is equipped with the Advanced Airborne Sensor, a sophisticated radar system capable of generating high-resolution imagery at what the military calls “standoff” distances. Coupled with a powerful data link system, the Poseidon can serve as a targeting platform for other weapons in the U.S. arsenal. Its radar can reportedly track a single car at extreme distances, lock onto it, and stream the targeting data to a nearby fighter jet, which can fire a long-range missile at the target. An earlier version of that radar system has also been deployed on some of the Aries planes.
Both aircraft play a pivotal role in tracking China’s growing naval might in potential flashpoints like the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Taiwan Strait. Beijing and Washington have been at loggerheads over China’s construction of an extensive network of runways and harbors that can accommodate military aircraft and ships on atolls and man-made islands in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. If the two countries were to ever engage in open conflict there, the surveillance craft would also be used to relay targeting information to American warplanes.
Determining the planes’ exact capabilities and vulnerabilities is of critical importance to Beijing, and now an alleged American spy may have unlocked those secrets.
It’s not clear if the naval flight officer at the center of the scandal, Lt. Cmdr. Edward Lin, meant to help Beijing when he allegedly began slipping secrets to Taiwan. U.S. authorities haven’t yet made public — and may not themselves know — whether they believe Lin was knowingly providing intelligence to China, or whether the information he allegedly gave Taiwan was stolen by Chinese spies inside Taiwan’s security services.
Either way, Lin is a source of potentially enormous importance to the Chinese. Lin had worked for the Navy’s Special Projects Patrol Squadron 2 for a year before he was arrested in September. The Hawaii-based unit is one of two elite squadrons that fly the Aries and Poseidon planes, which means that Lin has an unusually deep and granular understanding of the two planes.
“The area in which Lin was working matches up with Chinese areas of interest, including their military modernization programs and the tension over the South China Sea,” Mike Sulick, the former head of counterintelligence at the C.I.A. as well as the agency’s national clandestine service, told Foreign Policy.
As someone with advanced training and knowledge of the surveillance planes, Sulick added that Lin would be “somebody of incredible interest” to China.