Wanna Know If A New North Korean Missile Test Is About To Take Place? Look For This U.S. Aircraft Online…

You can monitor online the U.S. RC-135S Cobra Ball aircraft used to track ballistic missiles reentry vehicles and warheads during the final phase of flight.

Early in the morning on Jul. 4, North Korea successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time.

The ICBM, referred to as Hwasong-14, reached a height of 2,802 kilometers, according to the state-run Korea Central Television (KCTV). The missile was launched from Panghyon, in North Pyongan province, and flew into waters east of the Korean Peninsula after traveling for about 930 kilometers.

The latest missile launch, as well as the previous ones, was almost certainly monitored by the U.S. Forces deployed to the region, using a variety of aerial, ground-based, sea-going assets.

The U.S. Air Force relies on its small contingent of RC-135S Cobra Ball missile tracking aircraft. Based at Offutt Air Force Base, outside Omaha, Nebraska, and  flown by the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron, these intelligence gathering aircraft are often deployed where needed to track ballistic missiles reentry vehicles and warheads during the final phase of flight. The aircraft is equipped with a powerful radar array on the starboard side of the fuselage, just aft of the cockpit. Several optical quality windows are mounted on the starboard side as well, allowing infrared and visible spectrum cameras to record the warheads during their final moments of flight. A distinctive feature of the Cobra Ball is the black low-glare paint used on the starboard wing, to improve image quality and prevent glare during photography.

A Cobra Ball taking off from Kadena on May 31, 2016 (screengrab from YT video by okuchan2006)

Unsurprisingly, two Cobra Ball aircraft  (61-2662 and 61-2663) are currently deployed to Yokota Air Base, Japan, from where it is launched when there are signs of an imminent North Korean test. What is far more surprising is the fact that, in spite of their important role, RC-135S aircraft are among the military planes that can be tracked online by exploiting the signals broadcast by their Mode S/ADS-B transponders.

By observing the activities of the RC-135S in Japan you may have a pretty clear idea of what is happening or about to happen in North Korea. For instance, last night, the fact that the Cobra Ball was airborne from Yokota might suggest that the U.S. intelligence had detected activities at the launch site and was preparing to monitor the test. This is the reason why I tweeted the following (later confirmed by the news of the ICBM test):

And that was not the first time. Just a coincidence? Most probably not, considered that the Cobra Ball does not fly that much and almost all sorties tracked online in Japan coincided with North Korea’s tests.

Here are some examples:

On Apr. 15, North Korea test-fired an unidentified land-based missile from the naval base in Sinpo. An RC-135S was flying over Japan:

On May 13, North Korea test-fired an intermediate range ballistic missile, from a test site on the country’s West Coast. That launch reached a then-record altitude of around 2,100 kilometers (1,300 miles) and a Cobra Ball was airborne to watch and collect data:

On Jun. 20, a Cobra Ball and WC-135 Constant Phoenix “nuclear sniffer” flew over Japan. It was later unveiled that the spy satellites had detected new activity at the North Korean nuclear test site.

So, if you want to know when Kim Jong Un is preparing for a new test, you may try to look for a Cobra Ball or Constant Phoenix airborne over Japan on ADSBexchange or simply follow some of the Twitter accounts who constantly track such aircraft, such as our friend @CivMilAir who provided us with most of the updates on the RC-135 and WC-135 flights in the area.


About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.


  1. Good detective work! This may have started the clock ticking. The Kim regime must be destroyed, and the sooner the better. It boils down to a simple axiom – get him before he get’s us.

    This is where B-2’s, F-22’s and F-35’s program costs pay off. These aircraft, other kit, and especially the GBU-57A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator. Hope we have lots of ’em!

    • How much time do you have available to knock down their ofensive weapons until they hit Seoul or another Korean city with several A bombs? let me tell you, minutes, and that’s impossible! Thats why the South Korea president and the people who live near the crazy Kim wants diplomatic solutions.

      • A diplomatic solution? Funny! We’ve tried that for 60 years. All that effort has gotten us here.

        If you understood that the ultimate goal of NK is capture of the South where Kim reigns over the reunified nation than you’d understand why there is no “diplomatic solution”. But there is a military one that will seal off their use of nukes permanently. Way too long to go into here.

      • Totally agree. But Kim on the other side does not want an end similar to Saddam Hussein or Ghaddafy so he will go on with the nuclear ICBM project.

  2. Impressive that the surveillance is good enough to scramble these aircraft and get them in the region for around the time the ICBMs are launched. The country is 120,540 km² in size though, so monitoring that must be hard work!

    • SAR, ELINT, GMTI, and pattern analysis make 120,540 km² a lot smaller. ICBM tests are fairly easy to find – big tube and radar signature, and the fact that NK doesn’t have many other toys to clutter up our scopes, it’s not hard – they only have so many launch sites.

      • Ahh thats true, still very impressive! These young folk with their radar and fancy gadgets.
        In my day, we relied on politicians just lying and saying weapons were there that didn’t exist ;)

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