CNN’s Jim Sciutto recently got exclusive access to a U.S. Navy surveillance plane on a secret mission near China, where they flew over a string of man-made islands. China’s Navy issued eight warnings to the plane and told it to leave the area. On Tuesday, Jim answered questions from the Reddit community during an “Ask me anything“ session. Below are highlights from the conversation.
1. If your flight was warned eight times, I guess the flight crew didn’t take it very seriously then?
The flight crew was prepared — and read a scripted response saying that the U.S. considers the airspace there international. Frankly, both sides were very professional and calm, although I did hear frustration in the voice of one of the Chinese Navy radio operators when he yelled, “You go now!”
This was not the first U.S. flight over the islands but it is the first one the U.S. advertised broadly by bringing a TV crew on board. That was intentional and, judging by the Chinese government reaction, seems to have accomplished its goal of sending a message.
2. Did the crew show any change in posture/emotion when the warnings were received?
Frankly, it did not. They have flown these flights before and been challenged by the Chinese Navy before. A few months ago, it was a different story when a Chinese fighter did a barrel roll in front of a U.S. surveillance flight much closer to the Chinese coast. The U.S. formally complained to China and — I’m told — China promised it wouldn’t happen again.
3. How capable is China of shooting down the aircraft, even if flying at around 15,000 feet? Do eight warnings seem a bit redundant in their case?
Good question: for now, the flights are too far from to Chinese coast to be in range of Chinese fighter aircraft. Chinese naval ships are nearby though — we saw them! — and could have the weapons on board to threaten a U.S. aircraft but at this point, firing at a U.S. plane would be a clear act of war and therefore extremely unlikely.
4. If you were on a spy plane … why announce it to the world?
Again, fair question: clearly, in this case, the U.S. military wanted the world to know. Fact is, by bringing a CNN crew on board, the military wanted not only to show the world the extent of China’s activity but also show China that the U.S. is watching and, frankly, losing patience. In terms of sending a message, that tactic seems to have worked.
5. How does this type of access affect your reporting? Is bias not a concern with the networks anymore?
This is a very fair question. It’s my personal view that embedding during the second Iraq war often served the military’s interests. When you’re with troops — and your life, frankly, depends on them — it takes a real effort to separate your own point of view from theirs. I faced that challenge myself and hope I found a way to do it. I had the same concern going up in the surveillance flight. All you can do is ask hard questions and attempt to tell both sides of the story as best you can. But we all have to be very vigilant.
6. Do you think that these actions could deteriorate to an armed conflict over these islands?
Though neither side wants it, it is possible. And it most likely wouldn’t happen by choice. Rather, the worry is that a Chinese plane comes too close to an American plane or a Chinese ship too close to a U.S. ship. Do they bump? Does one go down? Fact is, this has happened before. In 2001, a Chinese fighter bumped a U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane. The Chinese fighter went down, the EP-3 did an emergency and dangerous landing on a Chinese island and were held for several days. The same encounter today, with China’s military much stronger, would be extremely dangerous.
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Disclaimer: This article was not written by Silent Soldier.