Some of the F-35A Lightning II aircraft currently at RAF Lakenheath will forward deploy to Estonia tomorrow. Meanwhile, the first RAF Typhoons have arrived in Romania.
According to information available to the Estonia ERR media outlet, an unspecified number of F-35s will arrive at Ämari air base, Estonia, on Tuesday, Apr. 25.
“The jets will remain in Estonia for several weeks and conduct training flights with other aircraft of the U.S. and allied air forces.”
Eight F-35s and 250 airmen belonging to the 34th Fighter Squadron, 388th Fighter Wing and the Air Force Reserve’s 466th Fighter Squadron, 419th Fighter Wing, Hill Air Force Base, Utah, have deployed to RAF Lakenheath recently (beginning with the first section of 6 aircraft on Apr. 15).
The 5th generation multirole combat aircraft have deployed to Europe for the first time in support of the European Reassurance Initiative. As done by the preceding US jets operating in the old continent as part of the so-called Theater Security Packages (TSPs), including the F-22 Raptors and the A-10 Thunderbolt IIs, they will visit various Baltic and eastern Europe airbases “to maximize training opportunities, affirm enduring commitments to NATO allies, and deter any actions that destabilize regional security.”
Meanwhile, on Apr. 24, RAF Typhoons have arrived at Mihail Kogalniceanu (MK) airbase near Constanta, in Romania for the first time in support of the NATO air policing mission. The aircraft will provide air policing over the Black Sea from May to September 2017.
According to the UK MoD, 135 Expeditionary Air Wing (EAW) consists of 150 personnel drawn from across the RAF, whose mission is to keep the fast jets flying during their four month deployment.
For two days in a row, Russian Air Force Tu-95 Bear bombers flew near Alaska’s airspace.
On Apr. 17 the U.S. Air Force scrambled two F-22 Raptor stealth jets, one E-3 Sentry AEW (Airborne Early Warning) aircraft and a KC-135 tanker (according to some reports, others don’t mention the Stratotanker’s presence) to intercept two nuclear-capable Bears flying roughly 100 nm southwest of Kodiak.
The stealth jets took off from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and intercepted the Russian aircraft inside the ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone), “the airspace over land or water in which the identification, location and control of civilian aircraft is performed in the interest of national security.”
ADIZs may extend beyond a country’s territory to give the country more time to respond to possible hostile aircraft: in fact any aircraft flying inside these zones without authorization may be identified as a threat and treated as an enemy aircraft, leading to an interception and VID (Visual Identification) by fighter aircraft.
North America ADIZs
The F-22 escorted the Tu-95s for 12 minutes (27 for some sources) before the Russian bombers headed back.
On the following night, that is to say few hours after the first “visit”, the Bear flew again inside the ADIZ but this time, the US Air Force opted to not scramble fighter jets but only the E-3 AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System). It’s not the first time the Russian Bears fly in the ADIZ, not even the first time that no fighter jet is scrambled to meet them.
Alaska ADIZ detail
Let’s have a look at the first episode. It’s worth of note that along with the 5th generation interceptors, NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) called for an alert take off by an E-3 Sentry. Most of times, QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) take offs by armed interceptors are supported by tanker aircraft, not by AEW assets: the fighters are guided to the unknown aircraft by ground air defense radars. That’s why I want to draw your attention on this “combined scramble.”
Launching the AEW along with the fighters is a “tactics” that allows the Air Defense to extend the radar coverage and to better investigate the eventual presence of additional bombers or escorting fighters flying “embedded” with the “zombies” (as the unknown aircraft are usually dubbed in the QRA jargon). At the same time, the presence of an E-3 allows the Raptors to improve their situational awareness while reducing the radar usage and maximizing as much as possible their stealth capability (even though it must be remembered that F-22s in QRA usually carry fuel tanks that make them less “invisible” to radars).
A combined AEW/F-22 scramble provides a more effective way to counter a possible “strike package”.
A long range sortie is not easy to plan. Even more so a strike sortie: the bomber are not only required to fly inbound the target (TGT) and reach a convient position to simulate the attack and weapons delivery, they also need to take in consideration many other factors. First of all “what is your goal?” Do you want to train for a realistic strike? Or do you want to “spy” or show your presence or posture?
Other factors are distance from own country, opponent’s defense capability, minimum risk routing according to the threats, presence of DCA (Defensive Counter Air), supporting assets, etc.
Usually, during a strike sortie, bombers are considered the HVA (High Value Asset), the one that must be protected. For this reason during the planning phase they are always escorted by fighter and protected by the Ground to Air threats by means of SEAD/DEAD (Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses), EW (Electronic Warfare) and everything is needed to let them able to hit their targeted.
However, escorting a strategic bomber is not always possible (nor convenient): considered their limited range, the presence of the fighters would heavily affect the long range planning, requiring support from multiple tankers along the route.
However, it’s better to be prepared and trained for the worst case scenario and this is probably the reason why NORAD included an E-3 AEW in the QRA team: to have a look at the Tu-95s and make sure there was no “sweep” fighters or subsequent “package”.
Based on my experience, the ones of last week were just simulated strike sorties with the only aim to test the U.S. tactics and reaction times. Something that happens quite frequently. There is also the chance the Bears were sent there while another Russian spyplane was in the vicinity to “sniff” the Raptors electromagnetic emissions. However, there are no reports of Il-20 ELINT aircraft in the area.
A U.S. Air Force E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) lands at U.S. Naval Support Activity Souda Bay. AWACS provides all-weather surveillance, command, control and communications needed by commanders of U.S. and NATO air defense forces and is considered to be the premier air battle command and control aircraft in the world today. U.S. Navy photo by Paul Farley. (RELEASED)
Top image: file photo of a Raptor taking off from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
Media Suggests U.S. Could Strike Preemptively: But What Are The Chances?
The U.S. Military could launch precision strikes against specific North Korean targets as early as next month if North Korea continues threats of nuclear weapons and long-range missile development. Military action may be viewed as necessary by the U.S. with growing concern over North Korea’s weapons development and continued threats of using long-range missiles to strike without warning.
Reported elevated readiness of Chinese, South Korean and U.S. military assets in the region have increased tensions and speculation about the likelihood of either the U.S. or North Korea launching a preemptive strike.
What are the chances and indicators of conflict developing soon in the volatile region? What would a U.S. strike, if it came, look like?
Social media and contributory Internet press have painted a somewhat sensational, hawkish picture of tensions in the region. The weekend prior to North Korea’s massive April 15 military parade U.S. media outlet, “Superstation 95.com” erroneously reported that, “There is now a “mad dash” to leave Seoul, the Capital of South Korea.” Spurious reports of military activity in the region have been widely shared across blogs and social media.
These sensational reports reached a climax over the weekend when network media incorrectly reported the USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) battle group was en route to the Korean Peninsula. It is unclear whether reports of the Carl Vinson battle group were intentionally misleading as a “feint” or if the media and U.S. government simply did a bad job coordinating press information.
Official Chinese media outlet Xinhuanet is muted in their characterization of an armed conflict being imminent, even though the BBC World News reports that, “China fears North Korea-US conflict ‘at any moment’.”
Despite sensationalized reporting, the North Korean watchdog website 38North.org suggests little remarkable activity within the key Yongbyon Nuclear Complex. This lack of activity pointed to the failed missile test Sunday in North Korea as opposed to a nuclear test near Yongbyon.
On Wednesday, April 19, Flight Service Bureau, a commercial aviation information organization, issued its strongest warning for civilian flights over North Korea, publishing a Notice to Airmen that reads, “With the increased tension on the Korean peninsula in April 2017, we raise the risk level to ‘Moderate’. Historically, the rhetoric has been predictable. That has now changed. With China off-side, and increased US appetite for action, North Korea has begun to act unpredictably.”
Flight Service Bureau’s “Moderate” risk level is their highest level, with the source confirming that, “In assessing risk to flight over each countries borders, two scenarios are predominant for civil flight: 1. Risk of shootdown, inadvertent or intentional; 2. Aircraft emergency requiring a landing. Both these elements are taken into consideration in determining a classification. The highest level of risk here is ‘Moderate’, on the basis that calling it ‘high’ or ‘severe’ would exaggerate the actual level or risk in landing or overflying the territories concerned”.
Notices to Airmen have declared North Korean airspace a “no-fly” zone for commercial operators. (Image Credit: SafeAirSpace.net e-mail bulletin)
The Chinese official airline, Air China, had already suspended flights between Beijing and Pyongyang, but the airline cited falling traffic as the reason, not diplomatic or security factors.
China halted imports of coal from North Korea to China, a potential blow to North Korea’s economy. Chinese media reports the reasons for the import halt were that the limits of Chinese mandated coal imports from North Korea, and that the reported tensions in the region are not related to the halt of coal shipments from North Korea to China.
United States popular media reports that China has moved military units close to the Chinese/North Korean border are disputed by the Chinese government. Official U.S. Pacific Command has refused to comment about any potential Chinese troop movements. China’s foreign ministry called such reports “pure fiction,” with Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying saying, “I have no idea where these reports are coming from” in remarks to the Chinese news outlet Huanqiu.com.
Any attack on North Korea by the United States within the next 60 days would likely be a measured response to nuclear or missile tests. Precision strikes likely using cruise missiles and, to a lesser degree, low observable aircraft like the B-2 Spirit, could destroy North Korean launch and test facilities specifically. Any action by the U.S. must also contain the threat of retaliation by the North Koreans on South Korea and Japan. The South Korean capital is only 35 miles, about 56 kilometers, from the North Korean border along with its 25-million person population, half of South Korea’s total population.
North Korea disclosed it has an inventory of approximately 38.5kg (84.8 pounds) of weapons-grade plutonium from spent fuel rods in May 2008. Two years later in November 2010 they revealed a uranium enrichment program intended to produce low enriched uranium for nuclear reactor fuel to produce electricity. This fuel could be converted to weapons grade materials, although yields would be low compared to the amount of material needed for nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang has conducted five live nuclear weapons tests, one each in 2006, 2009, 2013, and increased testing to two nuclear detonations in 2016. North Korea claimed the latest January 2016 test was a powerful thermonuclear warhead but this has not been verified. It is reasonable to suggest a significant amount of their nuclear material has been expended in testing.
Earlier in August 2013 the key Yongbyon Nuclear Complex started a 5 mega-watt nuclear reactor capable of producing 6 kg. (13.2 lbs) of weapons grade plutonium per year, but the reactor’s operation has been sporadic with satellite imagery frequently showing the plume of cooling steam leaving the reactor has stopped indicating it is not operating at full capacity.
To put this level of weaponized nuclear production into perspective it takes about 198 kg (436.5 lbs) of enriched uranium-235 to produce a warhead of similar destructive force to the warheads employed by the U.S. during the operational nuclear strikes on Japan in 1945.
Given these total numbers of nuclear material production North Korea would likely have a difficult time scraping together enough nuclear material to produce a reasonable number of warheads now. This is especially important when you consider their missile doctrine includes using large numbers of poorly guided missiles as opposed to sophisticated ICBMs with accurate targeting capability. In short, even if North Korea could load a warhead onto a missile with long enough range to reach the U.S., likely Alaska or Hawaii, it is unlikely the missile could be accurately guided to key targets.
Current assessment of North Korean offensive long-range missile capabilities. (Image credit: Created by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies for the Nuclear Threat Initiative – NTI.org)
If a preemptive U.S. attack on North Korea were to happen soon the primary strategic targets would likely be attacked from U.S. ballistic missile submarines using RGM/UGM-109E Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM Block IVs). This first wave attack, similar to the surface attack launched against Syrian chemical weapons assets on Friday, April 7, would directly hit nuclear and missile facilities along with North Korea’s ability to strike Seoul. The initial strike would also degrade North Korea’s air defense capability and early warning assets. At close interval to the first wave of Tomahawk missiles a series of airstrikes by U.S. Air Force B-2 Spirit stealth bombers using standoff weapons such as air-launched cruise missiles may target key North Korean facilities. Strike package planners would keep survival of the expensive and exotic B-2 bomber force as a primary concern since the U.S. has only 18 currently operational B-2 stealth bombers. Submarine launched ballistic missile strikes would be limited too, with the number of rounds fired from submarines against North Korea being controlled by how many conventional Tomahawk cruise missiles are on board for use against North Korean targets.
Tactical air assets, from both the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force, would be tasked with the air-policing mission should an attack happen on North Korea. These forces would contain and interdict any attack from North Korea on South Korea and provide a defensive cordon with Japan. Large numbers of North Korean long-range artillery gun tubes can fire on Seoul, so these targets would be destroyed if they began to fire on South Korea. It is unlikely U.S. Marine air assets would be tasked unless Marine Corps ground troops were employed, an unlikely outcome if the primary objective of the strike is degrading North Korean WMD development and capability.
A secondary objective to any strike on North Korea may be regime change. The rogue state has interjected political and economic uncertainty into the region since North Korea first invaded South Korea on June 25th, 1950. There has never been an official “end” to the Korean War of 1950, only an armistice signed in 1953. Tensions have remained high to extremely high for 64 years since the armistice. North Korea is a candidate for a “decapitation strike” since, unlike conflicts in the Mideast delineated by cultural and religious underpinnings, no such mass religious allegiance for North Korean leadership or culture exists outside the country. Adherence to government doctrine within the country is largely compelled by means of enforcement rather than voluntary compliance. In political and cultural terms North Korea is increasingly isolated and identified largely as a rogue state within the U.S. It’s likely very few Americans would identify with or feel empathy for North Korea if the U.S began military action against the rogue state.
A primary drawback to any regime change initiative is the potential for disastrous collateral humanitarian hardship. Any willful mission of regime change would have to include plans for humanitarian relief for the 25,378,000 people living in North Korea, many of whom live without electricity outside of the capital Pyongyang. The U.S. has not amassed any large humanitarian aid assets in the region to match its military build-up. According to a March 24, 2017 report in USA Today, “chronic food insecurity, early childhood malnutrition and nutrition insecurity continue to be widespread in the North, which ranked 98th out of 118 countries in the 2016 Global Hunger Index. More than 10 million people — or about 41 percent of the North Korean population — are undernourished.”
As many nations have learned in conflicts in Africa, a massive population of malnourished, displaced refugees can actually be a powerful weapon when expended toward neighboring nations, exacting a massive toll on infrastructure. Since North Korea shares borders with only China to the north or South Korea to the south these two countries would receive the burden of a massive refugee exodus from North Korea in the event of major conflict.
The likelihood of U.S. armed intervention in North Korea over the next 60 days may have been moderated by the recent U.S. missile strikes on Syria to destroy chemical weapons and the very large conventional aerial bomb attack in Afghanistan to destroy a cave complex. These actions send a clear message to Pyongyang: the current U.S. leadership is not afraid to use military force, even in a complex political environment such as Syria and its implications with Russian relations. As a result, North Korea may be cautious about how they proceed with provoking the United States. While North Korea may feign weapons tests they would, at this point, be unwise to provoke a U.S administration with a recently volatile record.
North Korea displayed their largest mobile-launch capable long-range missiles this past weekend. (RT.com)
North Korea is currently not believed to be able to reach targets in the Continental U.S., however, Kim Jong Un has often threatened nuking American cities (as well as a US aircraft carrier….) in the last few years.
In 2013, the “U.S. Mainland Strike Plan” exposed the targets of a North Korean ICBM (Inter Continental Ballistic Missile) attack on the U.S, whereas a video released on Apr. 13, 2013, few days before the North Korea’s celebration of Kim Il Sung, showed San Diego, Washington DC, Austin and Honolulu exploding into balls of flames after a missile attack.
Few days after the video of the nuke attack on the U.S. cities was released, American artist Al Clark “responded” to the disturbing North Korean nuclear threat and propaganda videos with a provocative computer generated image showing a B-2 dropping a nuclear bomb over Pyongyang.
North Korean Missile Test Failure Raises Theories, But Expert Disagrees.
The recent failure of the Sunday, April 17 North Korean submarine launched ballistic missile test raises an interesting question: Could the United States be responsible for the failure of North Korean missile tests? While the theory is alluring and some political sources are quoted as it being possible, one noted expert says he has seen nothing to suggest the U.S. intervened in the North Korean test failure.
Reports from the US Pacific Command at Camp H.M. Smith in Aiea, Hawaii under Chief of Staff Major General Kevin B. Schneider, USAF, say the U.S. detected a North Korean missile launch at 5:21 p.m. Eastern U.S. time zone on Saturday. The launches were seen at 11:21 AM Hawaiian time (21:21 GMT) said US Navy Commander Dave Benham, spokesman for United States Pacific Command.
Surveillance indicated the missile failed almost immediately.
A similar North Korean missile test was conducted earlier on April 5, 2017 and also failed along with another Mar. 5 North Korean missile test failure. All of the missiles encountered terminal problems in flight. These conspicuous failures follow a powerful U.S. initiative to develop clandestine anti-missile capabilities under the Obama administration beginning in 2014.
While there is no published evidence to support the theory that the United States directly interfered with the North Korean missile test, network media including CNN and the BBC have published speculative reports about whether the capability to remotely interdict a missile launch exists and was used.
“There is a very strong belief that the US, through cyber methods, has been successful on several occasions in interrupting these sorts of tests and making them fail,” former British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind told the BBC World News.
The Aviationist.com spoke to Dr. Bruce Emerson Bechtol Jr., Professor at the Department of Security Studies at Angelo State University, San Angelo, Texas in the United States.
In addition to his Ph.D. in National Security Studies from The Union Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio Dr. Bechtol was the Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College where he earned his pre-doctorate Masters Degree in Military Studies in 2001. Bechtol also owns a Master of Arts in International Affairs from Catholic University in Washington D.C. He is a noted authority on North Korean military capabilities. We asked Dr. Bechtol about the possibilities that the U.S. could have actively disrupted North Korean missile tests.
“There is nothing to support that.” Dr. Bechtol told us when we asked him about the plausibility of direct U.S. interdiction of the North Korean missile test. “I mean, it is certainly possible, but I have seen nothing to support that. All I have heard is conjecture. The media likes to talk about that.”
Noted expert on North Korean defense technology and doctrine Dr. Bruce E. Bechtol Jr. (credit: Committee for Human Rights in North Korea)
Dr. Bechtel told us that ballistic missile programs are inherently dependent on numbers. “It’s like the SCUD missile. Typically, of 600 of those fired, you get 150-200 duds. That’s normal, but the intention is to shower a target with missiles. And remember, if you are attacking Hawaii with a nuclear warhead, you don’t have to be that accurate, you just have to get one through.”
Another change in newer North Korean missiles noted by Dr. Bechtel was newer guidance fins. When asked what the guidance capabilities of the North Korean’s ballistic missiles are, Bechtel told us, “Well, I wish we knew. But one thing is for sure; the North Koreans are not noted for accuracy in their ballistic missiles. They don’t have to be.”
The failure may also have been a part of a historically difficult development program for North Korea’s missiles. But just as North Korea has had somewhat sporadic successes in their missile launch tests, the U.S. has also had at least sporadic success in testing systems to actively counter ballistic missiles. Even with Dr. Bechtel’s pragmatism there remains a remote chance that Sunday’s failure could have been a fortunate intersection of capabilities for the U.S. It also may have been continued North Korean bad luck. Among U.S. defense officials, the silence is deafening.
While Dr. Bechtel’s remarks suggest otherwise, a North Korean submarine launched missile test could theoretically be disrupted several ways. “I guess, you mean, something like Stuxnet is theoretically possible, but I haven’t seen any proof.” Stuxnet was a 2010 computer worm that disrupted Iran’s nuclear program. It is attributed to American-Israeli origin.
The least exotic method of passive missile interdiction is sabotage. This could occur at the missile assembly site or during transport of the missile or its components. Since North Korean missile programs are dependent on foreign technology they are highly vulnerable to sabotage throughout their development.
Current North Korean missile technology is derived from a combination of Chinese, Russian and Iranian technologies. Each of these foreign technology origins is “porous” to foreign espionage not only from the United States but also from Israel and the United Kingdom. It took China about 15 years to achieve its current level of development in ballistic missiles. North Korea has achieved a similar level of technology in only 123 days of advanced development, reinforcing the theory that most of the technology is imported, not indigenous. Given a seemingly new era of détente between the U.S. and China, including recent meetings between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, it is possible that a two-way sharing of technology between the U.S. and China has been brokered. This may further facilitate U.S. efforts to sabotage North Korean missile capabilities.
Interestingly, an Iranian ballistic missile test on Jan. 25, 2017 also failed shortly after launch. According to a US official speaking on condition of anonymity, the Iranian medium-range ballistic missile exploded in flight. But Dr. Bechtel continued to temper speculation with fact, “There were four SCUDs recently tested by North Korea that were successful. These recent failures don’t’ lesson the threat.”
The failed North Korean missile test on Sunday was possibly a version of the Pukguksong-1 submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM). This missile is boosted to the ocean surface from a submerged launch platform using either compressed air or a booster motor. Once it clears the surface the missile’s solid fuel motor ignites and it begins its flight.
North Korea has launched SLBM’s from both submerged test barges and from submarines. Part of the reason some tests were conducted from submerged barges is that launching missiles from a submerged vehicle is inherently dangerous. Reports indicate at least one North Korean submarine was seriously damaged during a missile launch test, suggesting a reason for why early tests were launched from a submerged barge instead of a submarine.
North Korea displayed new versions of the Pukguksong-2 submarine launched ballistic missiles this week but their most recent test launched failed. (credit: Official North Korean News Agency)
A more exotic theory about how the U.S. could disrupt a North Korean ballistic missile in flight is some type of active intervention during the test, as opposed to sabotage prior to the test.
Active interdiction of missile tests may include somewhat plausible methods such as electronic disruption of the missile’s guidance systems causing it to fly out of control and disintegrate, or more exotically, some type of focused energy weapon. Both of these technologies have been tested to greater and lesser degrees of published success. A key thing to consider when evaluating any of these theories is that advanced active jamming and destructive methods remain most effective when they are still secret. As long as these technologies remain covert it is more difficult- or impossible- for North Korea to engineer around them.
Some media outlets have suggested that North Korean systems are vulnerable to “hacking” or a cyber attack. While possible, cyber attacks depend on a “delivery vehicle” to implant malicious programming code into microchips or insertion via a virus. The Stuxnet weaponized code was inserted via a USB flashdrive.
China has devoted significant military and intelligence resources to cyber warfare but has little motive to employ those resources against neighboring North Korea- except to build leverage with the United States.
The U.S. also has highly developed cyber combat resources in addition to the early Stuxnet. These may include what is referred to as “left of launch” attacks. Some of these may even be interdiction of a ballistic missile while it is still underwater. One published technical report about electromagnetic propagation mentions the “Wireless, through-hull transfer of power and data”. This transfer is “highly focused” and ranges in excess of 1 km are discussed in unclassified reports dating as long ago as 2008 from submarine industry news source Hydro International. It is reasonable to suggest significant advances have been made in all of these technologies during the past 9 years, especially given the focus during the previous U.S. President’s adminstration.
Regardless of theories about possible test interdiction from the U.S., the North Korean weapons tests and their accelerated preparation have become increasingly ominous. Both media and political rhetoric has shifted from “if” there will be a military confrontation with North Korea, to “when” it will actually begin.
Top image: (computer generated) image of a North Korean SLBM (Rodong Sinmun via NK News)