Spy Plane - 'Destroying Sensitive Equipment'

Apparently, the crew of the EP-3 surveillance plane had standing orders to destroy sensitive equipment and information in situations similar to what just occurred in China.

How do they do this? Sledgehammer to computers? Are there small charges attached and ready to blow built into the equipment (in place for just this type of scenario)? Perhaps there’s a way of “melting” the circuitry with a quick power surge? Is misleading data quickly uploaded (in order to be found by the looters)?

Is this type of process rehearsed? Does everyone have a set role? If there’s limited time, who determines the priority of destruction? Ground controllers at the Pentagon?

Lotsa questions. Any info would be of interest.

KarlGauss- I heard a retired Admiral on NPR explain the process the other day…

  1. First, long before take off a list is created prioritizing the most sensitive stuff…

  2. The crew is instructed how to destoy crypto codes and other ultra sensitive written materials before the plane touches ground… presumably they are shreaded.

  3. Computer hard drives are zero’d and radar equipment is zero’d (memory is erased)…

  4. Hardware that is senstive is destroyed (he didn’t say how)…

  5. Material is ejected from the plane…
    and yes, they practice this stuff in training exercises. They had plenty of time to get rid of anything that was particularly damaging… or so he said.

According to Janes (probably the best source of info),

I think anything more detailed might just be highly classified :smiley:

Check out the BBC and this other page in Janes for more stuff

In a previous life I did some installation work in submarine radio rooms, probably the most sensitive area on the ship.

There was always a nice big sledgehammer stowed in the room somewhere…

KarlGauss- I heard a retired Admiral on NPR explain the process the other day…

  1. First, long before take off a list is created prioritizing the most sensitive stuff…

  2. The crew is instructed how to destoy crypto codes and other ultra sensitive written materials before the plane touches ground… presumably they are shreaded.

  3. Computer hard drives are zero’d and radar equipment is zero’d (memory is erased)…

  4. Hardware that is senstive is destroyed (he didn’t say how)…

  5. Material is ejected from the plane…
    and yes, they practice this stuff in training exercises. They had plenty of time to get rid of anything that was particularly damaging… or so he said.

I’ve been wondering how well they would have been able to perform these tasks. If the plane was jumping all over while they were fighting to land it, it might be hard to get it done.

Would the chinese have been able to immediately board after landing, or would would it have taken a while to break in one of the doors?

I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

FWIW, in my limited exposure to sensitive equipment, some of it is designed so that if you don’t follow the proper procedure in reading it or in attempting to remove it it clears itself. Obviously it’s better to have to reload something when someone errs than to allow access to curious snoops.

Further it is relatively uncommon for a particular piece of hardware to be classified just because of its physical makeup. It is much more usual to be classified because it contains sensitive data. This can obviously be handled much more easily than physically destroying the equipment. Often just turning it off is sufficient.

In spite of all this, however, there will still be some information to be gained by inspecting the aircraft. Perhaps even the existence of a piece of equipment was unknown, for example, so that even if it is destroyed it still gives something away. So it wasn’t quite a freebie to have the Chinese going over things with a fine tooth comb.

While the equipment is pretty important, the most sensitive stuff is the actual information inside them. A computer is a computer, but what it looks for and how, as well as what has been found is vital. Most of the equipment has emergency “crash” switches. The flip of a switch zeroes out key codes and degausses hard drives. What little paper documentation is instantly shredded in an on-board shredder for that purpose. Axes and hammers are used for general purpose destruction and some equiment has, at least in some areas… I’m not sure about that particular type of aircraft, pyrotechnics/incendiary devices inside to burn up and melt hardware. Reverse engineering radar hardware isn’t entirely difficult, but without the software that handles frequencies, patterns, etc… it’s rather ordinary.

Yes, practicing these actions is routine. There is most always a priority assigned to the order of destruction which is predetermined SOP in case everyone but one guy gets killed or something. (If there’s limited time to destroy equipment, they certainly don’t have time to radio back to a superior for instructions) I’m not sure who assigns the priority but I would assume that it originates with the NSA.

Thanks for all your posts and information.

I am feeling more reassured that there’s not been a catastropic compromise of national (and, IMHO, international) security.

I saw a little video segment interviewing an arms electronics dealer who sells systems like those on the captured plane. He said the crypto units have a little hardware plug, you pull the plug in case of capture and it wipes the RAM and blows electricity through the other circuits so nobody can decode what the circuitry does. How effective this is, I don’t know. They can get plenty of intelligence just from looking at what kind of antennas are on the plane. Personally, I think this is a huge compromise of US intel security.

Yeah, I figure the antennae are going to hurt.

That said, I know a lot of them are/were in the nose cone of the aircraft. All the pictures show the plane with the nose cone missing, but my trader swears he saw a picture of it with cone intact, indicating that the PLA had removed the cone after landing. Does anyone have the Straight Dope on that?

Also, a lot of other antennae are in various pods hung off the aircraft or attached to the wing (here is Jane’s look at them). Shouldn’t those be able to be jettisoned in just such a situation? If we’re going to lose them, I’d at least like the PLA or whoever to have to rummage around the bottom of the ocean for a while to get at the goodies.

As an engineroom watchstander on a nuclear sub in the mid 80’s.We had a “destruction order” posted at every watch station.It listed the priority of gear to be destroyed for that particular area.It consisted of all gear to be smashed,publications to be burned/shredded. I always wanted to get to do that!

For yet more information on the EP-3E, check out http://www.cadre.maxwell.af.mil/warfarestudies/iwac/IWCBT/p3.htm

The latest issue of Time magazine lists the following methods of distruction used.

  1. High powered magnets to erase computer tape and hard drives.

  2. Documents would be shreded and dumped at sea or distroyed using explosives in special containers.

  3. Physical distruction using hammers

  4. Dumping of gear using weighted bags.

It is noted that some or all of these activies would be difficult during a rough flight ie after the aircraft has been damaged.

While the military is concerned about the Chinese getting their hands on compromising data or secret equipment that they could then duplicate, I think they were primarily concerned that the Chinese would be able to tell what we were learning from our surveillance flights.

So the specific data doesn’t matter too much, but rather what kinds of data we can collect, and possibly at what sorts of resolution/distance/etc. Some of this would clearly be covered when sensitive equip./data is destroyed, but the mere presence of certain types of equipment may be damning, since the Chinese will be able to figure out what we can see.

Ok, a lot this has been discussed in the other china threads, but I’ll reiterate here:

People think we ‘routinely’ conduct drills to carry this plan out. I don’t know what ‘routinely’ means, but when I had my own crew, I only ran it once or twice each detachment (two months), and even then, it was strictly verbal, since I didn’t want people running around the plane, fumbling with pieces of crypto and classified (you don’t want to lose anything since that’s almost a career-ender), breaking the axe out, that kind of thing. So, you just get everyone up on headset and go through each position and make sure they have a good idea of what to do.

We zeroize the electronic equipment with switches on the boxes. We don’t shred anything; there are no shredders on board. The door and the open ocean are probably just as effective, and much more efficient (time-wise) as a shredder. For equipment we feel needs to be smashed, we use the axe (a very small hatchet, actually). No sledgehammers or heavy tools or incindiary flares. Smashing things, though, is a risky proposition, and one which some mission commanders may not want to exercise. If you have to make an emergency landing, or especially a ditching, the plane’s going to be whipping around pretty harshly. Any loose stuff in the cabin, such as pieces of smashed eqiupment and broken glass from display screens, will become lethal.

Kipper: The Time article is full of shit.

manhattan: Don’t worry about the nosecone. All that’s in there is a weather radar, just like every big aircraft. No special black boxes or equipment. None of the stuff on the fuselage is ejectable; it’s all hard-mounted. The radome, (or m&m as we call it), fyi, is technically able to be lowered in flight, but not detached. We don’t lower it because it makes no difference in performance, and we’d be afraid it wouldn’t come back up, making landing an interesting proposition. Also, there are no ‘pods’ on the EP-3, a pod being something which is detachable. Plenty of bubbles and ‘canoes,’ but no pods.

Chas.E: nothing like that on our plane. The guy’s full of shit. He’s probably sold a bunch of those to the military and is thinking, “Well, the EP3’s gotta have something similar…” Nope.

What’s been said about the data in the machine being more important than the machine is 100% true. Easy enough to get rid of all that. But we also carry a lot of paper stuff. Keep in mind that once control of the aircraft was regained, the crew had to figure out a few things: How much time do we have? Ditch, or find land. If land, where? Ok, now we have to communicate this quickly to people who need to know. Then I’d start worrying about the classified stuff. All this will only take a few minutes, but they didn’t have all that many minutes to start with. I’d say they’ll be lucky if they had 15 minutes to complete destruction, and that may not have been quite enough time, which I can totally understand.

disclaimer: this is hearsay information gained on a smoke break with someone I don’t know very well

A guy who works in the same building I do (PC hardware geek) claimed to have been on the maintenance detail for a base that included EP3’ while he was in the military.

He said that destrutction of the really sensitive stuff was not an issue, as there was an explosive charge actually built into the box. He recounted the fact that no one liked to hear one of these planes was coming in needing maintenance to one of these boxes and the techs certified to fix them would always hope one of the other certified techs would get the assignment.

He said the equipment would be gone at the touch of a button, and all someone opening it later would find would be dust.

Now, I can find several holes in that, but it’s way out side of my area of expertize and I have no reason to try and tell him he’s telling me fish stories.

Just thought I would toss that out and see if anyone can confirm such an unlikely happening. Granted, it would be a wonderful way to assure that highly classified stuff doesn’t end up in the wrong hands (from his description, even if the pilot didn’t blow it, if it was opened and manipulated by someone who didn’t know the proper sequence, boom) I have problems with the idea of one of these planes carrying boxes that might go boom at the wrong time.


This isn’t an airborne system, and I suspect that airborne systems would be different (who wants thermite lying around in the control cabin of an airplane?), but my dad tells me that when he was in Vietnam, his office filing cabinet had a built-in thermite charge on top. He always wondered how effective it would be, since you would expect the molten iron to just slide off the top before most of the papers got a chance to ignite.

Chronos: Cool. I can tell you I work in a classified facility, and I haven’t seen anything like that. I mean, boy would that be tempting, just to see what it’d look like.

I’ve heard a lot of notions about somehow burning our material, but you’re right, you kinda need to avoid doing any burning of anything on the aircraft. It blows me away to think that they used to allow smoking on the aircraft!

dublos, I can’t speak for the model of aircraft your friend worked on (it may have been the EP-3E Aries I (earlier version, slightly different in many respects but same airframe), whereas my bird, like the one in Hainan, is the EP-3E Aries II). So after chuckling a fair amount at your friend’s story (I mean, “dust”??), I must say anything’s possible. Just not on the Aries II.

Now, let me preface this with the statement I am not a pilot, spy, computer expert, avionics expert or surveillance expert.

However, I do see that the Chinese have gotten a bit of a windfall from our plane, no matter how you cut it.

Yes, the most sensitive gear and certainly the data itself (encryption settings and the like) are probably destroyed, BUT, a clever foe can learn quite a bit from even bits of machines.

The US Navy, through the CIA, once sent a submarine to collect shattered Soviet missile pieces from the floor of the Berents Sea- and even mangled, exploded and fragmented pieces told us a good deal about it’s construction, range and power.

And in the case of the P-3, it was still a semi-airworthy airplane; screw the cyrpto gear, how much can they learn from the engines? The avionics? How about simple electronics like the GPS? Will the ChiComs now have access- assuming they didn’t already- to our non-degraded-signal GPS system?

As mentioned above, simply examining the antennae tells quite a bit about the frequencies one expects to receive, the sensitivity of the gear and what electronic signatures they were recording.

Put it this way- would Intel want AMD to somehow wind up with an example of, say, a prototype “Pentium 6” chip, even if it were cracked, broken or unusable? One can learn a lot just by examining how its laid out, the materials used, etc.

Any way you slice it, the Chinese gained a major intelligence coup.