Tag Archives: Boeing WC-135 Constant Phoenix

These Spyplanes Are Watching North Korea’s Next Test

U.S. and South Korean intelligence gathering aircraft are monitoring Pyongyang’s next move.

Kim Jong Un says North Korea may soon test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean and, based on the signals broadcast by their Mode S/ADS-B transponders, it looks like several aircraft operating from their deployment bases in Japan and South Korea are interested in collecting signs of missile launch preparation.

In fact, despite their pretty clandestine roles, many U.S. spyplanes can be tracked online, using a standard browser to visit a public tracking website or COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) equipment.

For instance, here are the most interesting aircraft operating around the Korean Peninsula in the last few days. Needless to say, these are the ones whose transponder exposed their presence; many others are probably operating in the very same area, but adhering to stricter OPSEC rules that require the aircrew to completely turn off their transponders.

As already reported in detail, the RC-135S Cobra Ball missile tracking aircraft is the asset whose activities may give a pretty clear idea of what is happening or about to happen in North Korea.

 

The RC-135S Cobra Ball aircraft from Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, are able 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, whose purpose was to improve image quality and prevent glare during photography when the RC-135S launched from Shemya AB, Alaska, to monitor the Soviet activities in the Sakhalin peninsula: although the aircraft still feature the black paint on the aircraft’s right hand side, the current electro-optical sensors are able to remove glare from photographs. Moreover, the current Coobra Balls are equipped with optical and electronic sensors on both sides of the fuselage. RC-135S crews are augmented by several ground based, phased-array radar systems, such as the COBRA DANE radar at Eareckson Air Station in Shemya, used to provide radar coverage over the Northern Pacific.

Another aircraft that is often tracked in the region is the WC-135 Constant Phoenix, one of the two aircraft operated by the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron from Offutt Air Force Base, with mission crews staffed by Detachment 1 from the Air Force Technical Applications Center able to analyze the fallout residue in real-time, helping to confirm the presence of nuclear fallout and possibly determine the characteristics of the warhead involved.

The Constant Phoenix, known as the “sniffer” or “weather bird” by its crew made of up to 33 personnel, flies in direct support of the U.S. Atomic Energy Detection System, a global network of nuclear detection sensors that monitor underground, underwater, space-based or atmospheric events. The aircraft was first deployed to Kadena in April this year. Since then it has been tracked mainly in the aftermath of each nuke detonation.

 

The aircraft is equipped with external flow devices used to collect airborne particulate; for this reason, the Constant Phoenix “Nuclear Sniffer” is usually launched after the claimed nuke tests, to detect fission fragments by their characteristic decay radiation and verify the nuclear test and get some important details. For example, by looking for isotopes that could only be produced in a high intensity high energy neutron flux, analysts can determine if bomb was indeed a hydrogen bomb.

These Aircraft Sampled Air For Radioactive Particles To Determine If North Korea Actually Detonated A Hydrogen Bomb

 

Another interesting aircraft that was recently tracked online is the South Korea’s Boeing 737 Peace Eagle airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraft. This aircraft (that in the Turkish Air Force service can be spotted every now and then on Flightradar24.com circling at high altitude over southern Turkey most probably monitoring the movements of the Russian and Syrian planes)

Although the aircraft could be involved in routine AEW tasks monitoring the activities of the North Korean assets close to the DMZ, the Peace Eye embeds a variety of ESM (Electronic Support Measure) sensors that can be used to detect, intercept, identify, locate, record, and/or analyze sources of radiated electromagnetic energy augmenting the intelligence gathered by U-2S, RC-135V, RQ-4 Global Hawk, U.S. Navy EP-3E and P-8 and other assets that undertake ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) tasks on North Korea.

Anyway, OSINT as well as the analysis of the aircraft movements by means of ADS-B may give a pretty good idea of what happens around North Korea as Pyongyang prepares for a new test. One may wonder why such missions can be tracked online. This has been the subject of many articles. Considered that the risk of breaking OPSEC with an inaccurate use of ADS-B transponders is very well-known, it seems quite reasonable to believe that RC-135s and other strategic ISR platforms, including the Global Hawks, operate over highly sensitive regions, such as Ukraine, Libya, or Korea, with the ADS-B and Mode-S turned on, so that even everyone can monitor them. It’s a way to show the flag and prove that somebody is watching. Still, we can’t completely rule out the possibility it’s just a mistake.

Anyway, regardless to whether it is done on purpose or not, point your browser to ADSBexchange or follow some of the Twitter accounts who constantly track such aircraft, such as our friends @CivMilAir (who helped with the preparation of this article) and @aircraftspots, to get an idea of what is happening in the airspace around the Korean Peninsula.

 Image credit: U.S. Air Force

These Aircraft Sampled Air For Radioactive Particles To Determine If North Korea Actually Detonated A Hydrogen Bomb

No traces of radioactive materials, including xenon gas, were detected following North Korea’s latest nuclear test. Here are the aircraft that helped determining that.

On Sunday Aug. 3, North Korea conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test. According to Pyongyang the test involved a hydrogen bomb that can be loaded onto a long-range missile.

The test was anticipated and observed by different intelligence gathering platforms, including U.S. spyplanes launched from Japan and South Korea, whereas air-sampling equipment installed on planes, ships and land radiation detection stations was used to look for any traces of radionuclides released after the nuclear test.

South Korea’s nuclear safety agency said it has detected no traces of radioactive materials, including xenon gas, following North Korea’s latest nuclear test: South Korea’s background radiation currently remains at the usual level of 50-300 nanosieverts per hour, apparently unaffected by the North’s nuclear test, Yonhap News Agency reported.

Interestingly the air sampling activity was carried out by at least two type of aircraft.

First of all, the quite famous WC-135 Constant Phoenix “nuclear sniffer”. The WC-135C 62-3582 was tracked as it crossed the Pacific to forward deploy to Kadena, Okinawa, from where it has alsways operated in the last months.

 

Then, the aircraft was tracked flying over Japan’s west coast in the morning on Sept. 6.

The aircraft is one of the two WC-135 Constant Phoenix aircraft in service today (out of 10 examples operated since the 1960s). It’s a Boeing C-135 transport and support plane derivative, operated by the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron from Offutt Air Force Base, with mission crews staffed by Detachment 1 from the Air Force Technical Applications Center.

As already reported here in the past, the WC-135 flies in direct support of the U.S. Atomic Energy Detection System, a global network of nuclear detection sensors that monitor underground, underwater, space-based or atmospheric events.

The aircraft is equipped with external flow devices used to collect airborne particulate on filter paper. The particulate samples are collected using a device that works like an old jukebox: an arm grabs the paper from its slot and moves it to the exterior of the fuselage. After exposure, it is returned to the filter magazine where a new paper is selected for use.

The mission crews have the ability to analyze the fallout residue in real-time, helping to confirm the presence of nuclear fallout and possibly determine the characteristics of the warhead involved.

WC-135W Constant Phoenix, 55th W, 45th RS, 61-2667 (Credit: AircraftProfilePrints.com)

The WC-135 62-3582 is the same aircraft that completed a “tour” in Europe, earlier this year, when it conducted several missions both in the Barents Sea area and in the Mediterranean Sea until mid March amid speculations that the aircraft had been deployed to RAF Mildenhall because of an alleged spike in Iodine levels around Norway. However, the “nuke hunter” plane was on a “pre-planned rotational deployment scheduled in advance,” according to the Air Force spokeswoman Erika Yepsen.

Interestingly, not only did the U.S. WC-135 aircraft flew to take air samples to test for radioactive particles. As already done in the past, Japan launched some T-4 training jets, equipped with collection pods, to gather air samples.

A Kawasaki T-4 (Credit: Toshiro Aoki / www.jp-spotters.com)

Actually, JASDF is able to leverage a small fleet of aircraft to perform this task: for instance, in January 2016, the day after a North Korea nuclear test, Japan deployed a C-130 Hercules airlifter and four T-4 subsonic intermediate jet trainer aircraft to gather air samples and detect radioactive particles.

To collect particles across the country, T-4 equipped with pods were launched from different bases across Japan: Misawa, Hyakuri and Tsuiki airbases located in the districts of Aomori (north), Ibaraki (central), and Fukuoka (south) respectively.

Top image credit: Ken H / @chippyho and Wikimedia Commons

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.

 

Chinese Su-30 Flanker Jet Flies Inverted Over U.S. Nuclear Sniffer Plane Over The East China Sea

A Chinese fighter pilot performed a Top Gun stunt over a U.S. Air Force WC-135.

On May 17, a Chinese Su-30 Flanker rolled over the top of a U.S. Air Force WC-135C Constant Phoenix aircraft which was flying in international airspace above the East China Sea.

According to the CNN the Flanker belonged to a formation of two Chinese Su-30s that intercepted the WC-135 nuclear sniffer aircraft involved in a a routine mission in Northeast Asia.

The aircraft came within 150 feet of the WC-135 with one of the Su-30s flying inverted, directly above the American “nuke hunter” plane, in a stunt that was made famous by Top Gun movie.

“While we are still investigating the incident, initial reports from the U.S. aircrew characterized the intercept as unprofessional, ” said Air Force Lt. Col. Hodge in a statement.

The WC-135 Constant Phoenix aircraft is a Boeing C-135 transport and support plane derivative belonging to the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron from Offutt Air Force Base (with mission crews staffed by Detachment 1 from the Air Force Technical Applications Center) that is able to collect and analyze the fallout residue in real-time, helping to confirm the presence of nuclear fallout and possibly determine the characteristics of the warhead involved.

The aircraft has recently deployed to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan, close to the Korean peninsula, to monitor North Korea’s nuke weapons tests.

Throughout the afternoon, an WC-135W Constant Phoenix aircraft performs touch ‘n go landing exercises Feb. 12 at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. (U.S. Air Force photo/Josh Plueger)

Not the first time

This is not the first time a Chinese or Russian fighter pilot performs a Top Gun-like stunt or aggressively maneuvers close to a U.S. aircraft.

In February 2017, a People’s Liberation Army Air Force KJ-200 and a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion aircraft were involved in what was defined by U.S. officials as an “unsafe” close encounter over the South China Sea.

Last year, on Apr. 29, 2016, a Russian Su-27 Flanker barrel rolled over the top of a U.S. Air Force RC-135 aircraft operating in the Baltic Sea. The Russian jet came within 25 feet of the U.S. intelligence gathering aircraft.

Another Su-27 had carried out the same dangerous maneuver on another US Rivet Joint over the Baltic on Apr. 14, 2016.

Previously, on Jan. 25, 2016 another U.S. RC-135 intelligence gathering jet was intercepted over the Black Sea by a Russian Su-27 Flanker that made an aggressive turn that disturbed the controllability of the RC-135.

On Apr. 7, 2015 another Su-27 flew within 20 feet of an RC-135U over the Baltic Sea.

On Apr. 23, 2015 a U.S. Air Force RC-135U Combat Sent performing a routine surveillance mission in international airspace over the Sea of Okhotsk, north of Japan, some 60 miles off eastern Russia was intercepted by a Russian Su-27 Flanker that crossed the route of the U.S. aircraft putting itself within 100 feet of the Combat Sent.

In 2014, a Chinese Flanker made a barrel roll over a U.S. Navy P-8 maritime surveillance plane 135 miles east of Hainan Island, a spot where a dangerous close encounter of another U.S. electronic surveillance plane with the Chinese Navy took place back in 2001: on Apr. 1, 2001, a U.S. Navy EP-3E with the VQ-1, flying an ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) mission in international airspace 64 miles southeast of the island of Hainan was intercepted by two PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) J-8 fighters. One of the J-8s piloted by Lt. Cdr. Wang Wei, made two close passes to the EP-3 before colliding with the spyplane on the third pass. As a consequence, the J-8 broke into two pieces and crashed into the sea causing the death of the pilot, whereas the EP-3, severely damaged, performed an unauthorized landing at China’s Lingshui airfield.

The 24 crew members (21 men and three women), that destroyed all (or at least most of ) the sensitive items and data on board the aircraft, were detained by Chinese authorities until Apr. 11.

PLAAF Sukhoi Su-30MKK at Lipetsk-2 on Jul. 27, 2014 (Image credit: Dmitriy Pichugin)

 

U.S. Air Force deploys WC-135 “nuclear sniffer” plane to Japan to monitor North Korea’s possible nuke weapons tests

The WC-135C “nuke hunter” has deployed to Okinawa amid raising nuclear tensions with Pyongyang.

The U.S. Air Force WC-135C Constant Phoenix Nuclear explosion “sniffer” has arrived in Japan.

The aircraft was deployed to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, to monitor Kim Jong Un nuke tests, the Nikkei media outlet reported based on talks with a senior Japan Self Defense Forces official.

The aircraft was supposed to arrive at its Forward Operating Base last month but it was forced to perform an emergency landing at Sultan Iskandar Muda airport in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, on its way to Japan, on Mar. 24, following an engine failure.

The two WC-135 Constant Phoenix aircraft in service today (out of 10 examples operated since the 1960s) are Boeing C-135 transport and support planes derivative belonging to the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron from Offutt Air Force Base, with mission crews staffed by Detachment 1 from the Air Force Technical Applications Center.

The Constant Phoneix, known as the “sniffer” or “weather bird” by its crews, can carry up to 33 personnel.

Constant Phoenix flies in direct support of the U.S. Atomic Energy Detection System, a global network of nuclear detection sensors that monitor underground, underwater, space-based or atmospheric events. As the sole agency in the Department of Defense tasked with this mission, AFTAC’s role in nuclear event detection is critical to senior decision makers in the U.S. government, says the Air Force.

“Our aircraft is equipped with external flow devices that allow us to collect airborne particulate on filter paper and a compressor system for whole air samples,” said Tech. Sgt. Matthew Wilkens, a 9S100 and airborne operations section chief in a recent release. “The particulate samples are collected using a device that works like an old Wurlitzer jukebox. An arm grabs the paper from its slot and moves it to the exterior of the fuselage. After exposure, it is returned to the filter magazine where a new paper is selected for use. It’s a simple, yet very effective, concept.”

Effluent gasses are gathered by two scoops on the sides of the fuselage, which in turn trap fallout particles on filters. The mission crews have the ability to analyze the fallout residue in real-time, helping to confirm the presence of nuclear fallout and possibly determine the characteristics of the warhead involved.

This is not the first time the aircraft is moved close to the Korean peninsula in anticipation of Kim Jong Un rocket launches; moreover, the WC-135 has already been deployed to Japan back in 2011, when it was used to track radioactive activity around Fukushima following, a type of mission the aircraft had already flown in 1986 following the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in the Soviet Union.

The aircraft 62-3582 has recently completed a “tour” in Europe, arriving on Feb. 17, 2017 and conducting several missions both in the Barents Sea area and in the Mediterranean Sea until mid March. The pretty rare deployment to RAF Mildenhall, UK, amid raising concern for an alleged spike in Iodine levels around Norway, fueled speculations that the U.S. had sent the detection aircraft to investigate the reasons behind the radioactive levels detected in northern Europe at the beginning of January.

However, the “nuke hunter” plane was on a “pre-planned rotational deployment scheduled in advance,” according to the Air Force spokeswoman Erika Yepsen.

This time, with a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group heading to the Korean Peninsula, there is no doubt as to the aim of the deployment of the “sniffer” to Japan.

Image credit: Ken H / @chippyho via Wiki Commons

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