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Aires system not quite so secret

Saturday, 21 April 2001 19:53 (ET)

Aires system not quite so secret By RICHARD SALE, Terrorism Correspondent

China already "had access" to at least some of the electronic systems used on the EP-3E Aires II spy plane it now holds on Hainan Island in the South China Sea, according to Tony Cordesman, military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But as a result of seizing the plane, specialists may now be able to "spoof" or duplicate some of its supersensitive codes, EP-3E, part of a National Security Agency program to collect electronic intelligence on China made a forced landing in Hainan after an April 1 collision with a Chinese F-8 fighter.

According to Cordesman, "The Chinese don't use the (EP-3's) system, but they have had access to it. The basic system is not all that secret."

Administration officials told United Press International that Japan, which shares certain Identification Friend or Foe, and other operational electronic warfare codes, with the United States, is re-keying their codes, just in case.

One U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity, said the codes are re-keyed "pretty frequently" by means of electronics, but that it's likely that scheduled re-adjustments "have been moved up" because of the detaining of the NSA plane.

Cordesman agreed: "I think people will push the dates up" for changing of frequencies or other readjustments. But in spite of destruction of the major spy gear aboard the plane such as the "motherboard" -- a key piece of operational software -- Cordesman said that the Chinese may still be able to"get some useful data" from the plane.

While trying to "interpolate the software is impossible," the Chinese can gain some knowledge by seeing what went where, and how the gear was configured," Cordesman said.

But John Pike, director of, an Alexandria, Va.-based think tank, said, "I wouldn't assume that the changing of the codes was done in response to this incident." One U.S. intelligence official said that most of the aircraft's super-secret technology is part of a software venture called the Joint Airborne Signals Intelligence Architecture. It is a program shared by major U.S. electronic intelligence-gathering operations such as River Joint, Guard Rail and Global Hawk.

According to U.S. officials, the electronic equipment on the downed Navy EP-3B had recently been upgraded. Newly developed modifications had been installed known as the NSA Sensor Systems Improvement Program which centralized the system and simplified access to it on the plane.

According to several U.S sources, special elements of SSIP such as "Story Book" or "Story Teller," are merely advanced computer servers, and several U.S. officials told UPI that the details were still being closely held. The phrase "Story Classic" signifies it is part of a top secret Navy code program.

Said Pike: "Story Classic is a standard Navy cryptological program like Classic Wizard. When you see a phrase like World Classic, you know you have a special program."

Both Taiwan and Japan operate airborne electronic intelligence-gathering flights over the South China Sea, and both have had their flights challenged by Chinese interceptors, U.S. officials said.

-- Martin Thompson (, April 21, 2001

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