Friday, March 06, 2009

The Airliner Threat

It its latest attempt at sabre-rattling, North Korea has threatened to shoot down a South Korean airliner during next week's exercises between ROK military forces and their American counterparts.

Reuters has the warning, issued by the official Korean Central News Agency:

"Security cannot be guaranteed for South Korean civil airplanes flying through the territorial air of our side and its vicinity ... above the East Sea of Korea (Sea of Japan) in particular, while the military exercises are under way," the North's KCNA news agency quoted a statement from a government official as saying.

In response, South Korean airlines have announced plans to re-route flights approaching Seoul from the east, placing them farther away from North Korean territory. Singapore Airlines, which also operates a number of flights into and out of Seoul, has adopted a similar policy. Other carriers, including Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways and Air China, said they have no plans to alter their flight routes.

There was no word from U.S. carriers that service South Korean destinations, including Northwest Airlines and United.

Pyongyang's warning is almost certainly a prelude to the expected launch of a Tapeodong-2 long-range missile, now being prepared at a test site on North Korea's east coast. DPRK officials claim the rocket will be used to put a satellite into orbit, but western analysts dispute that statement. There were no signs of a satellite deployment during previous TD-2 launches in 1998 and 2006. Intelligence officials in the U.S., Japan and South Korea believe the launch is nothing more than a test of the extended-range missile, capable of hitting U.S. territory throughout the Pacific.

North Korea is expected to announce a "closure area" for air and naval traffic in preparation for the test. The restricted area may extended into commercial air corridors over the Sea of Japan --the same routes used by airliners flying into Seoul from the east. However, the launch of a single missile, from a location on the North Korean coast, would pose a minimal threat to commercial air traffic.

But the warning statement--and anticipated closure area--will achieve an important goal: minimizing air traffic over the Sea of Japan during the upcoming missile test. That will make it for North Korean air defenses to keep tabs on U.S. platforms expected to monitor the launch, namely the RC-135S "Cobra Ball," and the RC-135V/W "Rivet Joint."

Cobra Ball is a dedicated Measures and Signatures Intelligence (MASINT) aircraft, configured to track ballistic missile flights at long range. Normally based at Offut AFB, Nebraska, at least one RC-135S will be deployed to Kadena AB, Japan in preparation for the North Korean test. Rivet Joint is a dedicated SIGINT platform, used to monitor enemy communications and threat emitters, providing additional threat warning to Cobra Ball and other allied assets.

Indeed, the greatest risk to our reconnaissance platforms--and commercial airliners--comes from North Korean fighters and long-range surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), not the TD-2. The DPRK maintains a number of older fighters, mostly MiG-21s and MiG-19s, on alert at bases on it eastern coast. While both have limited ranges, they could (potentially) intercept an RC-135 operating within 150 NM of the DPRK coastline, or a commercial jet approaching ROK airspace.

A second threat comes from the aging SA-5 "Gammon" SAM system, purchased from Russia more than 20 years ago. North Korea has two SA-5 complexes, located an Ongo-dak and Tokchae-san. Together, they provide overlapping coverage of the eastern coast, and airspace south of the DMZ. With a range of at least 150 NM, the SA-5 is optimized for engagements against large, non-maneuvering targets like reconnaissance aircraft and commercial airliners.

In response, Washington and Seoul should make it very clear that any provocative move by Pyongyang will result in a strong military response. The U.S. and South Korea have a variety of assets that could target the SA-5 sites and airfields housing MiG-21s and MiG-19s. If North Korea sends its fighters on an intercept mission, they should be shot down. If one of the SA-5 complexes "paints" a recce flight or an airliner, the site will be hit with an ATACMS, anti-radiation missiles, cruise missiles or a combination of those weapons.

It's no accident that North Korea has grown increasingly bold in its provocations toward the U.S. and our allies in the Far East. Sensing weakness and indecision in the Obama Administration, Kim Jong-il is quite willing to test the limits of our patience--and response options.

Less than two months into Mr. Obama's term, Pyongyang has announced plans to launch another TD-2 (on a flight path that may carry it over Japan); vowed military against South Korea, and threatened to disrupt commercial air service along busy east Asia corridors.

The U.S. response? Nothing more than mild diplomatic warnings. No wonder Mr. Kim is feeling his oats.


amr said...

On April 15, 1969 when an American EC-121 Warning Star on a reconnaissance mission was shot down by North Korean MiG aircraft over the Sea of Japan. The plane crashed 90 nautical miles (167 km) off the North Korean coast and all 31 Americans on board were killed.
Not even Nixon hit back so why would they expect Obama to do so; neither do I.

Unknown said...

Amr--You raise a valid point; however, it is worth remembering that we did deploy significant forces to North Korea in the wake of the USS Pueblo seizure a few months earlier, and Nixon did stage a naval show of force in the SOJ in response to the EC-121 incident.

That doesn't excuse our tepid reaction, but there is a contrast to the current situation. The EC-121 shootdown was a surprise, compounded by communications problems that delayed receipt of CRITIC msgs by the National Command Authority. Forty years later, we know what the NORKs are going to do, but no one has apparently formulated a military response.

Incidentally, there was an event involving an RC-135 reconnaissance acft over the Sea of Japan a couple of years ago that was eerily reminiscent of the Warning Star incident. Using effective deception techniques, NK deployed some of their best fighters to Wonsan, then launched them "comm out" against the RC-135 over the Sea of Japan. The DPRK fighters arrived with minimal warning and could have shot down the RJ, had they desired. I'm hoping we have a better protection plan this time around.

El Jefe Maximo said...

Could there be anything more going on here?

I don't see how the regime in Pyongyang survives ten more years, at least as presently constituted. The resource base is about done. The rulers of that place have to know that. Meanwhile, there's rich South Korea just over the border, the Americans are tied down in the Middle East, and have -- to put it charitably -- an untested President.

Could the Kims actually be planning something bigger than sabre-rattling -- perhaps a try to repeat 1950?

I know it sounds a little wacky (this wolf has cried so many times since 1950) but the Korean War was (despite warnings) largely unexpected too.

The most encouraging factor on the map is the great power and wealth of the Republic of Korea. But it sure looks like a lot of it is close up to the DMZ which might not be wise. Still, I wonder if the North Koreans rate ROK military power perhaps as strongly as they ought to?

Unknown said...

El Jefe--No one believes in the long-term survival of North Korea; in fact, many experts are surprised the regime has lasted this long. There's something to be said for Absolute power, the Cult of Personality and the world's 4th largest standing army.

Over the last 10-15 years, much effort has been expeded toward the so-called "soft landing" of North Korea. In other words, the regime will eventually collapse, so we've got to manage the downward spiral. That's one reason we've been so accomodating toward Pyongyang and tried to engage other countries in the region. When the DPRK begins to go, we'll need help from South Korea and China to manage the crisis.

However, there's no reason to believe that North Korea couldn't go out with one more roll of the dice. Kim Jong-il has 2/3 of his Army within 60 miles of the DMZ. They could launch a limited attack with virtually no warning. And, in terms of objectives, they don't have to grab the entire peninsula, just the stretch from Seoul down to Osan. That's the economic and political heart of South Korea.

And for what it's worth, the defense of South Korea is predicated on (a) the timely arrival of U.S. airpower and (b) mobilization of the South Korean reserve. That makes it a race against time; can the DPRK grab needed territory before the ROKs can mobilize and before our reinforcements arrive.