It was a Sunday morning in early April of 2001. The Colonel and his Lady, the comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda, had just settled into their customary aisle-side seats in the Yongsan Chapel, when the beeper on the Colonel's hip got his attention.
The Colonel slid out of the pew and walked outside to call the duty officer in the US Forces Korea operations bunker.
"Boss," the major on the other end of the line said tersely, "you need to come to Ops."
The Colonel was nearing the end of a year as the Chief of Current Operations Branch (CJ-3 Ops); an insane job spent monitoring the major muscle movements of the crazies north of the DMZ and maintaining up-to-the-minute cognizance of the readiness status of combined US and Republic of Korea forces on the sane end of the Korean peninsula. The Chief of Current Ops was normally the first O-6 to get called when anything out of the ordinary happened. What made the job so insane was that those calls came hourly, on average, 24/7. All. Night. Long.
The Korean Peninsula isn't an ordinary place.
The toughest part of the Colonel's job was deciding what out-of-the-ordinary occurrences required waking generals up.
The duty rep from the Intelligence Center was waiting on the Colonel when he got to the Ops bunker. He quickly briefed the Colonel that a US intelligence gathering plane -- an EP-3 (see picture above) -- had just made an emergency landing on Hainan Island.
Hainan Island was Peoples Republic of China territory. US Pacific Command's responsibility. US Forces Korea normally didn't pay much attention to China. But, this was serious enough and close enough to our area of responsibility that it probably warranted the Colonel calling his boss -- a US Army major general whose title was C/J -3 (Combined/Joint Operations Officer). His boss was the four-star.
The Colonel picked up the phone and dialed the C/J-3's number. There was no answer on his quarters phone. The Colonel was in the process of dialing the general's beeper when he walked into the room.
"Saw you leave the chapel and figured something was up when you didn't come back in."
Over the next couple of hours the situation fleshed itself out as more and more information came in. A Chinese fighter jet had intercepted the US EP-3 about 100 miles off the coast of Hainan. The EP-3's flight was a routine intel-gathering mission. The intercept was routine, as well.
Except that "routine" for this particular Chinese pilot involved flying very close to, and sometimes crossing very close in front of, the US aircraft. We knew it was the same pilot, because on other intercepts he had flown close enough to flash his e-mail address for the US airmen to see.
This time, the Chinese fighter pilot misjudged and his aircraft struck the nose of the American plane. His plane was destroyed and his body was never recovered.
The EP-3, seriously damaged, rolled over and plunged out of control toward the South China Sea. Heroic effort by the pilot got the aircraft back under enough control to make an emergency landing at a Chinese military airfield on Hainan. The Chinese held the EP-3 crew for almost two weeks.
The newly-inaugurated Bush administration defused the tense international incident by sending a letter apologizing for the "unauthorized landing." W even sent a personal letter of condolence to the Chinese hotdog fighter pilot's widow. The Chi-comms tried to bully the Bush administration into paying for their lost jet, but W was only going to bow and scrape so much.
This past week another hot-dogging Chinese fighter pilot intercepted a US P-8 (new jet replacement for the propeller driven P-3). The Chinese fighter pilot pulled a couple of stunts reminiscent of Maverick in "Top Gun," flying very close (within 30 feet) to the P-8, showing off his weapons load, and then barrel-rolling over the top of the US aircraft.
The Obama Administration has lodged a formal diplomatic complaint with the PRC. They have responded by angrily demanding that the US cease the intel-gathering flights near their submarine base on Hainan and stay out of the area around the Paracel Islands.
The PRC occupies the Paracels, but Taiwan and Vietnam also claim the territory. A somewhat similar dispute is raging over the resource-rich Spratly Islands further to the south, with the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and China all claiming sovereignty.
All sides have been ramping up the rhetoric and re-arming with regard to this and other territorial disputes in the area.
Keep your eyes on the PRC. They aren't backing down.
All the more reason to quickly dispatch the fledgling Islamic State. We'll need to have all our wits and weapons about us when we finally end up going toe-to-toe with the Chinese.