Tag Archives: North Korea

Here Are Some Interesting Details About The Way U.S. B-2 Bombers Trained Over The U.S. To Strike North Korea

Some unusual activity took place in the skies over Missouri a couple of weeks ago. Including B-2s referring to air strikes on DPKR target on the radio. Just routine stuff or a message to Pyongyang?

What appears to be a medium size exercise, involving several different assets, took place over CONUS (Continental U.S.) in the night on Oct. 19 and Oct. 18, 2017.

Tons of military traffic, including B-2s and B-52s bombers, E-3 Sentry AEW (Airborne Early Warning) aircraft supported by KC-10 and KC-135 tankers were involved in a series of simulated air strikes on little airports all over Missouri. Radio comms over unencrypted UHF frequencies as well as the use of Mode-S and ADS-B transponders allowed milair airband listeners in the area to monitor the operations and to catch some interesting details. Besides the rather unusual amount of traffic (at least according to people who have been monitoring military air traffic through radio scanner for the last 15 years), what is really interesting is the fact that, during one night, one of the aircraft radioed a message about a “possible DPRK leadership relocation site” whose coordinates pointed to a hangar located at the Jefferson City airport.

This is what one of our readers wrote to us:

On the evening of Oct. 17, my wife and I where sitting outside by a fire enjoying the evening.

Around 8pm we saw three B-2s and what appeared to be a KC-135 fly over on a heading of roughly 080 and an altitude of 25,000 or below. It was after dark but at that altitude B-2s are easily identifiable if they have navigation lights and strobes on from directly underneath. We get quite a few military aircraft in eastern Kansas and this was nothing unusual.

I have been monitoring military air-air communications as a side hobby for a number of years so B-2s as well so the overflight prompted me to run and grab a handheld scanner. Shortly after turning on the scanner I heard the B-2s working Kansas City center using “BATT” [a previous version of this article referred to the c/s as “Bat”, however, Spirit pilots pointed out the right c/s is “Batt”] callsigns (most of the time they tend to use REAPER or DEATH).

After about 30min had passed, I picked up the B-2s and other aircraft on another frequency where they where using military brevity. It was clear they where simulating some kind of battle. They where talking to another callsign MOJO getting tasking to drop GBUs on different targets. They read some target Lat/Lon over the radio: quickly plugging one into Google Maps I found they where dropping bombs on a hanger at Jefferson City, MO, airport going as far as discussing the fusing time for best effect on target.

The next evening I was ready if the exercise continued with more receivers in place and proper recording software. About the same time (roughly 8pm) they started up dropping bombs on targets with tasking from MOJO and WOLVERINE. One of the targets, consisting of several Lat/Lon sets, was the runway and hangers at Osage Beach, MO airport. At one point they called friendlies in contact and proceeded with a danger close 150m airdrop at the same hangar at Jefferson City airport as the night before.

This is the first time I have heard a exercise of this magnitude over this area.

The first night they tried to use HAVE QUICK frequency hopping and I heard several timing pulses but they couldn’t seem to get all of the members of the net setup properly (that could have been planed to practice contingency plans). They also didn’t employ any encryption that I could hear so the whole exercise was broadcast for the world to hear in plain old analog UHF AM. The most interesting part was when they radioed “a command post possible DPRK leadership relocation site” but when this was said I had not started recording it yet.

My opinion is that the Missouri Ozarks look a lot like North Korea, but we have no way of telling if something is planend or they are just preparing in case things go south.

The amount of money spent and the number of national assets involved sets this far above anything I have heard around here.”

Here below you can hear what this reader has recorded during the above drills. It’s just a 5-min audio file cut from a longer +30min version. However it gives pretty much an idea of what was happening on Oct. 18.

Was the exercise aimed at simulating a raid on a North Korean “VIP”?

Most probably yes. This is something that is being planned for months. Night missions of three-ship B-2 flights (using the very same callsign “Batt”) are standard practice as our recent story of three Spirit stealth bombers refueling over southwest Missouri few days before the above exercise was monitored proves.

What is weird is the fact that radio comms included a clear reference to a DPKR target. Indeed, it’s no secret that thousand radiohams, aviation geeks, aircraft spotters etc. use radio transmission to track military air traffic. For this reason, real ops are always conducted with a strict radio discipline, so that no detail is leaked to the “enemy” (or anyone who should not have the right to listen) and encrypted radio frequencies or frequency hopping techniques are used. However, the whole exercise was carried out on very well known unencrypted frequencies. This could have happened because of a mistake (usually names of enemy nations are never specified during radio comms) or on purpose, to let the word spread that the B-2 are preparing to attack North Korean targets. A sort of subliminal message such as the one sent with a video that showed, for the very first time, a Spirit bomber drop a 30,000-pound MOP (Massive Ordnance Penetrator) “Bunker Buster” bomb or one of the various show of force missions flown from the U.S. (or Guam) to the Korean peninsula.

Dealing with Mode-S transponders, these made some of the aircraft involved in the ops, visibile on flight tracking websites. However, this is far from being unusual: despite the risk of breaking OPSEC with an inaccurate use of ADS-B transponders many aircraft, including RC-135s, Global Hawks and other strategic ISR platforms operate over highly sensitive regions, such as Ukraine or the Korean Peninsula, with the ADS-B and Mode-S turned on, so that even commercial off the shelf receivers (or public tracking websites) can monitor them.

Okie 33 was a KC-135 supporting the B-2s during their simulated air strikes.

An E-3 Sentry also supported the Spirit bombers during their simulated air strikes.


Top image: Todd Miller

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North Korea Threatens To Shoot Down U.S. Bombers Even If They Are Flying In International Airspace

Pyongyang could target planes even when they are not flying in North Korean airspace, North Korea’s Foreign Minister told reporters.

On Sept. 25, North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong Ho accused President Donald Trump of declaring war, saying that gives the regime the right to take countermeasures, including shooting down U.S. strategic bombers, even if they are not flying in North Korean airspace.

The new comment comes amid growing tensions and rhetoric between Pyongyang and Washington: on Saturday Sept. 23, hours after Kim Jong Un said that North Korea would soon test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific, U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers from Guam, along with U.S. Air Force F-15C Eagle fighter escorts from Okinawa, Japan, flew in international airspace over waters east of North Korea, in what was the farthest north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) any U.S. fighter or bomber aircraft have flown off North Korea’s coast in the 21st century.

Then, Trump said the North Korean regime “won’t be around much longer” if North Korea’s Foreign Minister “echoes thoughts” of dictator Kim Jong Un, referred to as “Little Rocket Man” by Trump:


According to Ri Yong Ho, Trump’s comment was a declaration of war, that gives Pyongyang the right to shoot down U.S. bombers.

Whether North Korea would be able to shoot down a B-1 flying in international airspace or not is hard to say. The Lancers and their accompanying packages (that have also included stealthy U.S. Marine Corps F-35Bs) are theoretically very well defended and rely on the heavy electronic support provided by a large array of assets that continuously operate at safe distance from North Korea (or, in case of satellites, literally above it) to pinpoint Pyongyang forces, to collect signals required to update the enemy’s EOB (Electronic Order of Battle), and to keep an eye on all the regime’s moves.

However, North Korea’s philosophy of self-reliance, the use of road-mobile launchers, underground bunkers as well as hidden shelters could create some hassle even to the world’s most advanced air armada.

Considered the status of its geriatric Air Force, mainly made of Soviet-era aircraft, North Korea would only rely on Surface to Air Missile (SAM) batteries to attack a B-1, provided the bomber is well inside the missile engagement zone.

Indeed, North Korea operates a mix of Soviet SAMs, including the S-75 (NATO reporting name SA-2), S-125 (SA-3), S-200 (SA-5) and Kvadrat (SA-6), some of those not only are in good condition, but were probably upgraded locally. In addition to these systems, North Korea is also fielding an indigenous SAM system, dubbed KN-06 or Pongae-5, said to be equivalent to a Russian S-300P (SA-10) with a range of up to 150 km.

KN-06 SAM fired during a test on April 2, 2016. © North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) / Reuters

Although, individually, these systems can’t pose a significant threat to a modern strategic bomber flying off the North Korean coasts, combined and employed in a coordinated way by trained operators, they can be particularly tough to deal with, especially in case they are faced “head-on” by attackers intruding into the enemy airspace protected by many layers of mobile and fixed SAM batteries. However, should the need arise, U.S. forces would probably neutralize most (if not all) of the fixed batteries with long-range stand-off weapons before any attack plane enters the North Korean airspace.

By the way, this is not the first time Pyongyang threatens the B-1. A recent propaganda video showed, among the other things, the fake destruction of a Lancer bomber…

 

U.S. B-1 Lancer Bombers Escorted By F-15 Jets Fly East Of North Korea, North Of The DMZ: Four Reasons Why This Time It Is Interesting.

This is the farthest north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) any U.S. fighter or bomber aircraft have flown off North Korea’s coast in the 21st century.

On Sept. 23, hours after the latest threats from Kim Jong Un who said that Pyongyang will soon test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific, U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers from Guam, along with U.S. Air Force F-15C Eagle fighter escorts from Okinawa, Japan, flew in international airspace over waters east of North Korea.

This time, the show of force is a bit more interesting than usual, for four reasons:

1) it is the farthest north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) any U.S. fighter or bomber aircraft have flown off North Korea’s coast in the 21st century;

2) unlike all the previous ones, the latest sortie was flown at night, hence it was not a show of force staged to take some cool photographs;

3) no allied aircraft is known to have taken part in the mission at the time of writing, whereas most of the previous B-1 missions near the Korean Peninsula involved also ROKAF (Republic Of Korea Air Force) and/or JASDF (Japan’s Air Self Defense Force) jets;

4) it was a U.S. Air Force job: no U.S. Marine Corps F-35B stealth jet took part in the show of force this time, even though the STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) variant of the Joint Strike Fighter has taken part in all the most recent formations sent over Korea to flex muscles against Pyongyang. The photo here below shows the “package” assembled for Sept. 14’s show of force.

Munitions from a U.S. Air Force, U.S. Marine Corps and Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) bilateral mission explode at the Pilsung Range, South Korea, Sept 17, 2017. The U.S. and ROKAF aircraft flew across the Korean Peninsula and practiced attack capabilities by releasing live weapons at the training area before returning to their respective home stations. This mission was conducted in direct response to North Korea’s intermediate range ballistic missile launch, which flew directly over northern Japan on September 14 amid rising tension over North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile development programs. (U.S. Army photo by SSgt. Steven Schneider)

According to the U.S. Pacific Command, today’s mission is” a demonstration of U.S. resolve and a clear message that the President has many military options to defeat any threat. North Korea’s weapons program is a grave threat to the Asia-Pacific region and the entire international community. We are prepared to use the full range of military capabilities to defend the U.S. homeland and our allies.”

Top image shows a U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer, assigned to the 37th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, deployed from Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, receives fuel from a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker Sep. 23, 2017. This mission was flown as part of the continuing demonstration of the ironclad U.S. commitment to the defense of its homeland and in support of its allies and partners. (Photo by Tech. Sgt. Richard P. Ebensberger)

 

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