Tag Archives: Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit

We Encountered The B-2 Stealth Bomber At Night in Stormy Skies To Get These Crazy Cool Photos. Here’s How It Went.

Close Encounter With Two Ghostly B-2 Spirit Stealth Bombers At Night.

“It’s go time!” The crew announcement snaps me from my sleep. It’s near zero hundred and we fly in dark skies over western Missouri. The anticipation amps up on FORCE 26, a 305th Air Mobility Wing (AMW) KC-10 from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, NJ (JBMDL). I hurriedly gather my camera equipment and follow the crew to the refueling station.

FORCE 26 skims the top of a storm front, slipping in and out of clouds. The KC-10 rattles, thumps and bounces in the bone jarring turbulence. I struggle to get seated and configure my camera for a hopeful, if not mercilessly difficult shot. I can see nothing but heavy grey clouds below and deep black skies behind. Unseen, three thirsty Spirits are surely closing quickly.

To my right the boom operator, Senior Master Sergeant Carl Wise buckles in. Wise has 10 years on the boom but an eighteen-month hiatus requires his requalification. Tonight, is his check ride. To his right sits active instructor and assessor, Tech Sergeant Adam Sochia. Sochia watches closely as Wise moves through system checks. An audible alarm sounds and warning light flashes. Oh no, not possibly now… No additional drama required, but tonight we have it in spades.

Outwardly Wise and Sochia appear calm, proficient and thorough, but the tension in their voices is palpable. Radios crackle between Wise and the flight crew in the KC-10 cockpit. They too have noted the alarm, and together discuss appropriate action. Despite years of experience Wise is now tested by the system and the conditions. His decision making and skills evaluated during in-flight refueling with the USAF’s most prized asset – in turbulent air at visibility limits. Wise extends the boom and verifies complete movement and control. Check. Proceed.

Eyes outward, I am only peripherally aware of their challenges. I have my own. I frantically move through camera settings – looking for something, anything that will work in darkness beyond what I had imagined. Autofocus is out of the question, ISO settings through the roof, lens wide open, shutter speeds impossibly low…. I am out of time. BAT 71 draws near at constant speed, her strobes flashing and command module glowing. Is she beast, or some machine from the future? Whatever the case, these are her skies and she rises through the fog like a wraith to take …. our fuel.
Before she can connect we slip into the clouds. I discern her outline a mere 100 ft off the boom, some 150 ft away. Enshrouded in cloud she stops and holds position, as if to study her prey before moving in. We cut in and out of cloud catching glimpses of her dark and mysterious form. Wisps of cloud flash eerily over her wings like flowing grey hair. City lights reappear as the jagged robe of her trailing edge passes by. We bounce and rattle through the skies, while BAT 71 glides smoothly behind. This unearthly Spirit is at home in the dark and turbulent skies.

The Spirit comes… BAT 71 B-2 from the 509th BW (Whiteman AFB) incoming on FORCE 26, a KC-10 from the 305th AMW (Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst). 0 Dark Thirty over southwest Missouri.

Sights like this may be common for boom operators, but leave a word defying imprint on me. Surreal, Supernatural, Magic – no word, no description is adequate. Yet make no mistake, in another place and at another time encountering three wraiths can only mean one thing – the impending doom of someone or something. The B-2 Spirit is both the ultimate global deterrent and Grim Reaper.

Bouncing through the clouds and turbulence just after midnight and BAT 71 a 509th BW B-2 Spirit (Whiteman AFB) holds just off the boom of FORCE 26, a KC-10 from the 305th AMW (Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst).

Radios crackle, “Kansas City Center, FORCE 26, request climb to clear weather.” “FORCE 26, Kansas City Center cleared to climb and work airspace block 23 – to 28,000 ft.” “Climbing to work airspace block 23 – 28,000 ft. FORCE 26”

The KC-10 starts upward and BAT 71 follows as if suspended just off boom. Breaking free from the clouds we find smooth, clear air. Wise, now in control of the refueling operation clears BAT 71 to connect. The Spirit slides forward. Though close to her home at Whiteman AFB, MO the B-2 Spirit has been aloft for near four hours and requests thousands of pounds of fuel.

Small talk non-existent, gas and go with a B-2 is often done with no words exchanged. In the best conditions an air to air connect is no simple task. It is a choreography of dance between aircraft of all types and sizes – the two platforms briefly becoming one. The team on both sides of this boom are seasoned professionals and make this connect look as easy as walking up and shaking hands. BAT 71 is on the boom and I ponder her mystery.

Operated by the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman AFB the B-2 is the premier platform of the United States Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC). Invisible by night, the stealthy B-2 bomber can penetrate heavily defended airspace and deliver a punishing knock-out blow. Traveling around the globe from Whiteman AFB, the Spirit is well-known to fly missions of over 24 hours. Earlier this year the B-2 recorded a mission of over 30 hours requiring 15 aerial refuelings!

The 305th AMW and their force of KC-10 tankers at JBMDL enable the Global Reach of the USAF. On this mission we fly with crew from the 32nd Air Refueling Squadron (ARS) with the clear and accurate motto “Linking the Continents.” It is a simple fact, without units like the 305th AMW the Global Reach of the USAF would be severely diminished.

The importance and value of the mission is not lost on boom operators like Wise, who comments “a boom operators job offers instant satisfaction. Every time we refuel an aircraft we enable it to complete its mission, whether in training, combat, or humanitarian relief.” This job satisfaction explains why I find myself with 3 very experienced boom operators. All three are Instructors, including Master Sergeant Jessica Stockwell with 11 years’ experience. The three are passionate and have found tremendous rewards in service. Stockwell notes that it is an incredible team effort from the maintenance group to the entire crew on the aircraft. As it relates specifically to her role as in-flight refueler she says, “during preparation and flight the 2 pilots and flight engineer are responsible for everything that happens in the cockpit, the in-flight refueler is responsible for everything that happens outside the cockpit, air to air refueling, cargo, people and more. It is very rewarding to have that mission responsibility.”

BAT 71 B-2 Spirit from the 509th BW (Whiteman AFB) takes fuel from FORCE 26, a KC-10 from the 305th AMW (Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst). 0 Dark Thirty over southwest Missouri.

Buffeted by turbulence BAT 71 drops briefly off the boom. As the turbulence subsides she slides back making another connect look effortless. This Spirit is not leaving without getting all her intended fuel. The entire encounter speaks of planning, precision and the utmost professionalism. Dropping off the boom a final time, BAT 71 disappears into the night. Under duress, SMSgt Wise passes his review and moves forward toward instructor requalification.

BAT 71 – 509th BW B-2 Spirit head on as seen from FORCE 26 – 305th AMW KC-10 just after midnight in the skies over southwest Missouri.

Sochia and Stockwell fuel BAT 72 & BAT 73. Time passes too quickly. Their thirst satisfied the bombers disappear into the dark skies to destination(s) unknown. This was a training mission. In the same fashion, the Spirits loaded with deadly ordnance could be destined to strike a target on the other side of the globe. As happens, cable news quick to broadcast pictures of the impact of their undetected visit.

B-2 Spirits are each identified with a unique U.S. State, such as “The Spirit of Missouri.” I always considered the name “Spirit” in such context. Zero Hundred, October 3 has forever changed my perspective. “Spirit” as perhaps was always intended, is; “one emerging from the clouds, lights glowing, hair flowing, mysterious, ghostly – and most certainly, deadly.”

BAT 72 B-2 Spirit from the 509th BW (Whiteman AFB) takes fuel from FORCE 26, a KC-10 from the 305th AMW (Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst). 0 Dark Thirty over southwest Missouri.

The Aviationist expresses gratitude to the 305th AMW, the 32nd ARS, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst Public Affairs Team Shaun Eagan, SrA Lauren Russell, A1C Zachary Martyn, the exceptional team of in-flight refuelers and entire flight crew of FORCE 26! All professionals through and through in the finest sense.

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Fiction Story: A B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber Is Downed During An Air Strike On A North Korean Nuclear Site

A “what if” story.

Disclaimer: this story contains some “poetic licenses” to make the fictional scenario more interesting.

03:19 Hr.s Local. 35,000 feet, B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber “Spirit of Arizona”, 15 miles west of Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, North Korea.

The B-2 Spirit stealth bomber is nearly invisible to radar. But not bullets.

Pulling off target after a massive precision strike on the North Korean nuclear weapons development facility at Yongbyon, North Korea, B-2 Spirit number 82-1067, the “Spirit of Arizona” was leaving the target area at medium altitude and high-speed. The aircraft was configured for minimum radar and signals observability with all lights retracted and emissions restricted. Spirit of Arizona was one of three B-2’s that leveled the nuclear research facility in a massive conventional bombing raid, the largest of the New Korean War so far. While it would take a few hours to collect bomb damage assessment data the satellite images would show the raid was a complete success, with the entire research facility, storage areas and the reactors themselves being completely devastated in a hail of precision-guided 2,000 lb bombs.

Now all the crew of Spirit of Arizona had to do was get themselves and their nearly invisible, completely defenseless, two billion dollar aircraft out of the most heavily defended airspace in the world and back to Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, in CONUS (Continental US).

03:22 Hr.s Local. 37,800 feet, North Korean MiG-29 Fulcrum, 28 miles southwest of Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, North Korea.

Sojwa (Major) Kim Si Gwok had more hours in MiG-29 Fulcrums than every other North Korean fighter pilot except for two. He did have the most time flying the Fulcrum using night vision goggles, a particular distinction considering the North Korean Air Force did not have enough night vision goggles compatible with the MiG-29 for all the aircraft they owned. That distinction put Maj. Gwok on CAP (Combat Air Patrol) in his MiG-29 tonight over the critically strategic target of Yongbyon as part of the air defense for the facility. That the American stealth bombers had already gotten through to hit the nuclear facility was a major failure for the North Koreans.

Maj. Gwok knew Yongbyon had been hit within the last few minutes, likely by cruise missiles or American stealth bombers. Gwok couldn’t do much about the cruise missiles. He read about British Spitfire pilots in WWII who had defeated the first cruise missile, the German V-1, by flying next to them and flipping them over with their wingtip. That would be impossible with the low altitude American Tomahawks. But, if there were stealth bombers in the area that he may be able to shoot down, he was going to try to find them. As a lifelong combat pilot he felt he had a sense of what the enemy’s egress route from the target might be, the shortest distance to the coast.  So that was where he went looking for the “invisible” American stealth bombers.

In March 1999 the Yugoslavians used a combination of ground based observers and expert search radar operators to shoot down an F-117 stealth fighter. It was a lucky shot, a golden BB, and it proved stealth wasn’t invulnerable. Major Gwok knew this. He knew that, other than stealth, the American batwing bombers were defenseless. If he could see one, he could shoot it down.

03:28 Hr.s Local. 35,000 feet, B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber “Spirit of Arizona”, 41 miles west of Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, North Korea.

Mission Commander, Capt. Bill Myers of Pensacola, Florida and Aircraft Commander, Maj. Dave Evans of Boulder, Colorado were getting constant secure updates on the air defense environment through their secure datalinks onboard Spirit of Arizona as she ran toward the coast after hitting Yongbyon. The three strike aircraft followed different egress routes in the very unlikely event an enemy aircraft or air defense crew could somehow visually acquire one of the B-2’s at night. Since the B-2 was a fast, subsonic aircraft, was relatively quiet, painted black to blend with the night sky and operated at altitudes to avoid contrails the chances of an enemy fighter pilot visually acquiring them was almost zero. But not absolute zero. Myers and Evans knew the entire North Korean air defense network would be up looking for them with everything they had. Even with the most sophisticated combat aircraft in history they still had to get out of North Korean airspace without being seen.

A KC-135 Strantotanker from the 100th Air Refueling Wing refuels a B-2 Spirit from the 509th Bomb Wing in the late hours of Jan. 18, 2017, during a mission that targeted Islamic State training camps in Libya. The B-2’s low-observability provides it greater freedom of action at high altitudes, thus increasing its range and a better field of view for the aircraft’s sensors. Its unrefueled range is approximately 6,000 nautical miles (9,600 kilometers). (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kate Thornton)

03:29 Hr.s Local. 37,700 feet, North Korean MiG-29 Fulcrum, 47 miles southeast of Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, North Korea.

Gwok didn’t really see the American stealth bomber as much as he saw what appeared to be a slit in the night sky. Reflected light from humid air at lower altitudes cast a low, soft glow upward from the ground below. The sky had a gently silver tinge to its black emptiness except for a small sliver of dead black below and to the left of Gwok’s MiG. Not knowing the sensor capabilities of the American stealth bomber, if that is what he saw, Gwok turned gradually to align himself with what he thought was his potential target’s heading. He gently moved the stick forward and, as his MiG closed the distance to the sliver of black the descent also added airspeed. His approach was perfect, high and behind. If he was right, this looked too easy.

03:29 Hr.s Local. 34,000 feet, B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber “Spirit of Arizona”, 51 miles west of Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, North Korea.

Myers and Evans knew they were in deep trouble. AWACs told them over secure, stealthy datalink  communications that there was an enemy aircraft high and behind them. There was a remote chance it could visually acquire them. There was nothing they could do except recheck the low observable settings and the make sure the throttles were firewalled so they could get out of North Korean airspace as quickly and invisibly as possible. If it wasn’t already too late.

03:30 Hr.s Local. 37,700 feet, North Korean MiG-29 Fulcrum, 49 miles southeast of Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, North Korea.

Gwok wasn’t quite sure it was an American stealth bomber at first. Through his visor, the night vision goggles and his canopy the image was ghosted and dark. A black slit in the otherwise pixellated sky. Then two bright rectangles of green bloomed in front of him; the exhaust heat from the B-2’s four engines. Even though they are channeled and louvered to prevent a large infra-red signature from below they still pump out a lot of heat as seen from above. That heat lit up Major Gwok’s night vision goggles. His fingers flew over his console to unsafe his GSh-30-1 cannon. The instant the safety selector was slewed to “FIRE” his gloved finger clamped down on the trigger at the front of his stick. The 30 millimeter cannon tore off a succession of white-hot shells in a bright line of arcing white dots perforating the night sky. They expanded out in a wide curve and faded. Gwok jinked hard right, largely from instinct but also to avoid overrunning his target or even colliding with it. He didn’t know if he scored a hit. He pulled hard back and right on his stick, describing a tight circle to come around and see if he could spot the black stealth bomber.

As Gwok finished his tight 360-degree turn and rolled wings level he saw something trailing flame through the night sky, cartwheeling straight down toward the earth like a black, burning boomerang.

03:30 Hr.s Local. 34,400 feet, B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber “Spirit of Arizona”, 55 miles southeast of Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, North Korea.

Alarms lit off inside the cockpit. The nose went down and Evans tried to add power and gently pull back but there was no perceivable control response. The aircraft began to shudder, then pivot oddly beneath them. It was falling apart. The G-load increased and the aircraft entered a spin like a boomerang. Evans got one hand between his legs and into the ejection handle as he said, out loud into his mask, “EJECT, EJECT, EJECT!”. Myers never heard him. He may have been fighting the losing battle to save the aircraft, he may have been wounded, he may have been dead. He never made it to the ejector seat handles.

The B-2 spun nearly 180 degrees in the air, nosed down and began to topple like a kite freed of its broken string. The top of the flying wing’s fuselage exploded in a spit of flame as Maj. Dave Evans’ ACES II ejection seat rocketed free. It flipped end over end at first, falling through 15,000 feet until it stabilized somewhat. At 10,000 feet the barometric altimeter automatically released Evans from the seat and his parachute began to deploy. The ejection, like all escapes from a crashing airplane, was violent. The severe vertigo was made worse by the darkness. Evans lost consciousness from the centrifugal force of the seat spinning after his egress from the crashing airplane but came back into a hazy state of alertness once his parachute canopy opened and he was scooting along under it at a steady speed with the prevailing winds. He didn’t know it, but the winds were carrying him toward the west coast of North Korea.

A disadvantage to being a stealthy aircraft is that, when the aircraft goes down, it is very difficult for rescuers to know where to look for the surviving crew, if there are any. Major Dave Evan’s ejector seat was equipped with a ProFIND SLB-2000-100 locator beacon. The beacon is a part of the pilot’s survival kit packed into the seat pan of the ACES II ejector seat. It actuates automatically when the pilot separates and dangles below him as a part of the survival kit package. At 9,500 feet above the ground Evan’s locator beacon began to transmit.

03:40 Hr.s Local. 45,000 feet AGL, U.S. Air Force E-3 Sentry AWACS Aircraft, 21 miles west of North Korean coast.

Airman 1st Class Stephanie “Stuffy Stef” Monroe, an airborne sensor operator oddly prone to allergies on board an E-3 Sentry off the coast of North Korea, saw something on her monitor she had only seen in training. The flashing icon indicated an incoming emergency locator beacon from a pilot’s survival kit. She keyed her microphone to the on-board mission commander. In less than one minute half of the crew of the E-3 were shifting their workloads to a new priority; rescue one of the most sensitive assets in the U.S. military- a stealth bomber pilot.

(TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, OKLA) Airmen from the 960th Airborne Air Control Squadron monitor the skies during the E-3 Sentry 30th anniversary flight Mar. 23. The E-3 first arrived at Tinker on Mar. 23, 1977, and Airmen have been conducting the same aerial surviellance mission for the past 30 years. (Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Stacy Fowler)

This story was originally posted at Tomdemerly.com.

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Check Out This Cool B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber IQT Graduation Video

Here are the newest four graduates as pilots of the Stealth Bomber.

On Jul. 21, 2017, B-2 IQT (Initial Qualification Training) 85 class (the 85th IQT class on the stealth bomber) graduated four new Spirit pilots.

The class is the initial qualification training course to qualify as B-2 Stealth Bomber pilots. It’s a 6 month program with 10 flights in the mighty “Bravo Deuce”. During the course each pilot got to drop 4x 2,000 lbs mark-84 weapons and was trained how to evade enemy air defenses.

Among the pilots who attended IQT 85 there were 3 guys fresh from pilot training and 1 guy who was a previous C-17 airdrop instructor pilot.

B-2 pilots are dual qualified in the T-38A Talon, a jet used to keep the proficiency in instrument flying, formation, and just to keep their hand flying skills sharp. Noteworthy, 3 of the new B-2 pilots are also T-38A IPs (Instructor Pilots) at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri. The newly graduated pilots were given the numbers #643, #644, #645 and #646: the Spirit numbers are given anytime (including non-pilots like generals, senators, etc.) who get a flight in the B-2.

“While we were in training the B-2 did its mission to destroy the ISIS camp in Libya so we threw some of the drone footage in the video,” said one of the newly graduated pilots in a message to The Aviationist.

Congrats guys!

Watch Two B-2 Stealth Bombers Recover Into RAF Fairford (With Radio Comms)

Take a look at this cool clip of two Spirit bombers arriving in the UK.

On Jun. 9, 2017, two B-2s deployed to RAF Fairford, UK.

Interestingly, the two aircraft, 82-1068 Spirit Of New York (using radio callsign “Mytee 21”) and 88-0329 Spirit Of Missouri (“Mytee 22), launched from their homebase at Whiteman AFB, Missouri, visited a bombing range in the UK before recovering into RAF Fairford.

The following video, filmed by our friend Ben Ramsay, shows the two stealth bombers approaching runway 27 at Fairford, where the Spirits joined the three B-52 Stratofortress and three B-1 Lancer bombers already deployed there to take part in exercise BALTOPS.

Although the U.S. Air Force deploys its bombers to RAF Fairford regularly, it’s quite rare to have the three types on the British base at the same time.

Indeed B-2s don’t move from Whiteman AFB, in Missouri, too often: they are able to hit their target with very long round-trip missions from their homebase in CONUS (Continental U.S.), as happened during recent training missions, extended nuclear deterrence sorties in the Korean Peninsula, as well as during real conflicts, such as the Libya Air War in 2011, Allied Force in Serbia in 1999 or the more recent air strike on ISIS in Libya. A capability that is common to both the B-52s and the B-1s that, unlike the stealth bombers, are more frequently deployed abroad.

However, the deployment of the “bomber trio” has already taken place last year at Andersen Air Force Base when the three different platforms simultaneously launched from Guam for their first integrated bomber operation in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. Is the current deployment to the UK a sign that the trio-bomber force is becoming a routine in the way the strategic assets are operated by USAF?

H/T UK Aviation Movies

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Will The U.S. Preemptively Strike North Korea?

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)

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