In the wee hours of September 23, U.S. bombers and F-15C fighters flew over the Sea of Japan (known in Korea as the East Sea) north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea. It was said to be the first such flights in the area this century, and reports would have readers believe that the sorties were unique accomplishments of aerial derring-do. Well, maybe – but probably not.
Any statement that an aircraft flew in “international waters” in attempting to show bravery or demonstrate force has little value. While international law allows countries to claim 12 miles (22 kilometers), it is well known that North Korea does not accept that limitation, having long claimed 50 nautical miles (92 kilometers) as their territorial airspace
In light of that and due to missile launches to the area by the North, the American Federal Aviation Authority has warned U.S. commercial flights not to fly west of 132 degrees east longitude when at the same latitudes as North Korea. This obviously does not apply to U.S. military aircraft.
Since North Korea sees U.S. military aircraft as direct threats but did not react, it brings up the question of just how close to North Korea’s eastern shores those bombers and their fighter escorts actually flew.
In the past, flying in the Sea of Japan close to the east coast of North Korea has been exceptionally hazardous. There are numerous. examples of just how dangerous the area was.
On April 28, 1965, a U.S. reconnaissance-configured RB-47 flying least 40 nautical miles (75 kilometers) off the North Korean east coast was shot up by North Korean MiGs and severely damaged. Although none of the American crew was injured, the aircraft itself was barely able to return to its home base in Japan.
Four years later, on April 15, 1969, a U.S. EC-121 reconnaissance aircraft had been flying no closer than 50 nautical miles from North Korea when it was shot down by North Korean MiGs at a point roughly 90 miles (165 kilometers) off the east coast of North Korea, killing all 31 crew members.
This writer participated in similar reconnaissance missions during that timeframe, in the same area where the RB-47 was attacked and the EC-121 was shot down. It was a dangerous place to be then – white-knuckle flying at times. Yet, how risky it was in subsequent years is not well understood.
For example, on March 04, 2003, an American RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft was intercepted by North Korean fighters about 150 miles (275 kilometers) off the east coast of North Korea. Even though the North Korean fighters did not fire on the U.S. jet, one fighter did “light up” the American plane with its fire-control radar, an action universally considered hostile.
Any statement that an aircraft flew in “international waters” in attempting to show bravery or demonstrate force has little value
The fact that Pyongyang sent its jets out to intercept the U.S. plane demonstrated that North Korea was still sensitive to the presence of foreign aircraft in airspace well beyond what it has formally claimed. It has been decades since U.S. aircraft sortied up North Korea’s east coast, so why was there no reaction this time?
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) states that Pyongyang did not even know that U.S. aircraft had flown up the east coast of North Korea this time.
NIS explanations for the North Korean non-reaction also included (1) their interceptor aircraft crashing in the dark, (2) surveillance radars not being turned due to power outages, and (3) the B-1B stealth bombers not showing up clearly on radar. Missing from such a set of rationalizations was North Korean night-shift radar operators being inattentive.
Taking these explanations in reverse order, is it really likely that all of the several radar sites up and down North Korea’s east coast missed detecting the mass of metallic objects in its eastern skies? Further, while B-1Bs do have low radar signatures due to stealth design, what about those fighters? Moreover, it is too easy to dismiss a lack of reaction to crashes in the dark, for what is there to run into when at an altitude over the seas?
All these reasons indeed are possible, but they do not seem likely. It is true that in the past North Korean pilots rarely flew during hours of darkness or ventured great distances over water, and that lack of training has likely been exacerbated by scarce fuel supplies. However, with hostiles on their screens, it seems that something would have been scrambled. We just do not know yet.
What we do know, though, is that North Korean surveillance radar can distinguish between a “large type” – a bomber or a reconnaissance plane – and a large type accompanied by several “small types” – fighters. We also know that the North has declined in the past to engage American aircraft protected by fighters performing BarCAP (Barrier Combat Air Patrol).
Thus, a more probable explanation for the stand-down of the DPRK air force is three-fold: (1) unfamiliarity with long-distance over-water flights, (2) unfamiliarity with extended flying in the dark; and (3) lack of desire to engage several U.S. fourth-generation fighters.
No doubt the North Koreans are well aware of the prowess of American aircraft, particularly in the dark. As often claimed, U.S. fighters and other American tactical aircraft do “own the night.”
It has been decades since U.S. aircraft sortied up North Korea’s east coast, so why was there no reaction this time?
“DECLARATION OF WAR”
Despite North Korea’s Foreign Minister blustering that Pyongyang now has the right to shoot down U.S. bombers even in international airspace, we still do not know how sensitive Pyongyang is today about the airspace off its east coast: after all, the regime is notorious for its empty threats and verbal posturing.
The U.S. planes that ventured north were not equipped to gather useful intelligence about how Pyongyang viewed their flights. Learning the DPRK’s current posture on enemy aircraft in its area would require sending an unescorted reconnaissance aircraft up the east coast of North Korea just outside of what Pyongyang claims as its airspace – in other words, right at 50 nautical miles (90 kilometers) offshore. But that would be perilous, not because of North Korea’s reacting fighters but due to its surface-to-air (SAM) missiles.
With adequate warning, our reconnaissance jets should be able to escape further eastward over the Sea of Japan to evade the relatively limited range of reacting DPRK air force fighters and North Korea’s surveillance radars.
Note well, though, that timely warning would be critical – delay would be disastrous. However, attempting to outrun a fourth-generation North Korean SAM is mission impossible. The North Korean Pongae-5 SAM that was declared operational earlier this year has a range of at least 80 nautical miles (150 kilometers).
So, regarding what was accomplished by a low-radar signature bomber with fighter escort flying somewhere up the east coast of North Korea, it is doubtful that we achieved much at all.
To begin, the North Koreans quite predictably did not react militarily. But, we do not know how far north of the DMZ the U.S. planes ventured or how close they came to North Korea’s shores.
Before indulging in “we sure showed them” celebrations or taking comfort in the belief that “the Norks can’t touch us,” it would be good to know a great many more details about (1) those U.S. flights and (2) the North’s lack of response to them. Those daring sorties may have been much ado about nothing.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 1288 words of this article.