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 CIA 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.
The espionage case comes at a fraught moment in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, with the United States and its Asian allies increasingly concerned about Beijing’s assertive moves in the area. Beijing has been building artificial islands to bolster its expansionist claims in the strategic waterway, escorting fishing flotillas in contested waters and deploying radars, missile defense systems, and fighter jets in the Paracels.
The alleged espionage could undercut the U.S. military’s surveillance operations in the Asia-Pacific, where U.S. and Chinese vessels are engaged in a game of cat and mouse — and increase the potential that a misunderstanding could escalate into an armed clash.
Peter Singer, a senior fellow at New America, said that if Lin has spied on behalf of China he could have clued in Beijing about what the United States knows about Chinese capabilities. American admirals, Singer said by way of example, are deeply concerned about the possibility of a Chinese submarine attack on a U.S. carrier group. Lin, by virtue of his experience in an airborne submarine hunter, could provide China with key intelligence about how and at what range the United States can detect Chinese attack submarines. That might allow Chinese admirals to evade America’s premier submarine hunter, said Singer, co-author of the novel Ghost Fleet, which depicts a future war with China.
Planes such as the Poseidon and Aries also soak up electronic data as they fly along China’s coastline. This includes, for example, emissions from coastal radar stations, radio communications, and other data traveling through the air. That information can be used in mapping radar stations and planning for an eventual strike on Chinese territory. Lin’s suspected espionage could possibly compromise such plans by revealing what weaknesses in Chinese defenses that the United States has managed to observe.
The Poseidon, Singer said, represents “the cutting edge of our maritime surveillance and anti-submarine warfare planes.” The plane marries a highly advanced set of sensors with an innovative way of sharing the information it collects with planes, ships, and submarines. “Imagine it as a key hub in a hub-and-spokes approach,” he said.
Lin, who is being held in pretrial confinement at the Navy Consolidated Brig in Chesapeake, Virginia, faces possible charges of espionage, attempted espionage, and patronizing a prostitute.
Lin was born in Taiwan and has written critically online about China’s Communist government, raising questions about whether he would knowingly try to help Beijing. Sulick, the former CIA officer, said one possible explanation is that Lin was a victim of a “false flag” operation in which Chinese agents posed as Taiwanese spies — leading Lin to mistakenly provide information to an American rival instead of an American ally
Taiwan has had its own troubles with mainland Chinese intelligence agencies infiltrating its military. As trade has blossomed between the two sides, cross-strait espionage has also expanded, said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific security program at the Center for a New American Security.
“There have been a number of arrests of Taiwanese military personnel, and concern has grown over how lax security has become on the island,” Cronin told FP.
In a 2011 case that rocked the Taiwanese military establishment, Taiwanese Gen. Lo Hsien-che was sentenced to life in prison for selling classified information to China. It was Taiwan’s worst spy case in 50 years, and the general was the highest-ranking official to ever be caught spying for the mainland. In 2013 and 2014, Taiwan uncovered 15 more cases of espionage for the Chinese, almost all by members of active duty or retired members of the military.
Cases of Americans passing secrets to Taiwan are more rare. U.S. State Department official Donald Keyser pleaded guilty in 2005 to charges of unauthorized handling of classified information and passing information to a Taiwanese intelligence agent with whom he was having an affair. Then in 2010, retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. James Wilbur Fondren Jr. was convicted of passing information to a Taiwanese contact, who then forwarded it to Beijing. Fondren had been serving as a deputy director of the U.S. Pacific Command’s Washington liaison office.
If the charges against Lin prove true, it would add yet another notch to the U.S. Navy’s disastrous record of failing to protect state secrets. A cash-strapped American sailor named John Walker spilled a trove of secrets to the Soviets from 1967 to 1985, allowing Moscow to read a vast number of coded messages and know where American submarines were operating. After the damaging Walker scandal, the Navy tightened its rules to ferret out spies and soon discovered that a civilian intelligence analyst, Jonathan Pollard, had been passing suitcases of classified documents to Israel. Pollard was convicted of espionage and served 30 years in prison before he was released in November 2015.
Sulick, who spent years hunting moles within the CIA, said the military has improved its counterintelligence procedures in recent years. If the allegations against Lin are true, Sulick pointed out that his capture is an improvement on the Walker years, when a spy compromised America’s most closely held secrets for 17 years. Still, he said, “I wouldn’t be having a pep rally as a result.”
Beijing hasn’t needed spies to learn damaging secrets about the American planes. The capabilities of the Aries, in particular, were compromised by China once before, when one of the planes collided with a Chinese Shenyang J-8 fighter near Hainan Island in the South China Sea in June 2001.
The U.S. crew was forced to land on the Chinese island. The personnel and the plane were eventually handed over, but not before Chinese technicians are thought to have pulled as much data from it as possible, forcing the U.S. Navy to take a more cautious approach to surveillance flights near the Chinese coast and to upgrade the plane’s systems.
By Dan De Luce, Elias Groll, Paul McLeary