KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — Contrary to initial Pentagon reports, North Korean fighter jets did not “lock on,” or sight their missiles on, an unarmed U.S. reconnaissance plane Sunday, a Pentagon official told Stars and Stripes.

Locking on to an aircraft is one step before pushing the button that sends a missile into its target.

The North Korean MiG fighters carried heat-seeking missiles, which do not require radar targeting, an unnamed Defense Department official said Wednesday.

U.S. reconnaissance videotapes taken during the incident revealed the missiles, he said.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis confirmed Wednesday that one of the four North Korean jets in Sunday’s incident had located and “acquired,” or identified, the U.S. plane — an RC-135S Cobra Ball — with airborne-intercept or target-acquisition radar.

The radar enables aircraft to target other aircraft. In lock-on mode, the radar sends a steady, unbroken beam to the target aircraft and “talks” directly to the missile. At that point, the target is one button away from annihilation, Davis said.

Within an hour of the story’s release Monday EST, Defense Department officials retracted that a MiG fighter had locked its fire-supported radar on a U.S. aircraft, Davis said. After further reviewing the surveillance tapes, they determined Tuesday EST that the aircraft had not locked on, Davis explained.

“It’s a pretty hostile action to take” when a fighter aircraft locks on its fire-support radar, said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Harry Baker. “That’s scary for the crew, for sure. When they lock on, they can fire a missile at any time. I’m sure the crew was a little concerned, if they thought they had locked on.”

Baker, a former RC-135 pilot who retired in 1969, said it was significant that the MiG carried heat-seeking missiles, because they could have shot down the reconnaissance plane without radar.

Sunday’s incident as initially reported was “the most provocative thing the North Koreans have done” since downing a Navy EC-121 surveillance plane in 1969, killing the 31 Americans aboard, said retired Air Force Col. Bill Ernst.

If the MiG had locked on to the surveillance plane, it would have constituted a blatant act of aggression, said the former RC-135 pilot.

Following the 1969 incident and for decades after, U.S. surveillance aircraft flew very few missions over the Sea of Japan where North Korea was the objective, Ernst said, “but when we did, we had escorts.” If North Korean pilots continue these provocations, he said, the U.S. military should send escorts to protect surveillance missions.

That Sunday’s incident occurred 150 miles out to sea was another cause for concern, Ernst said.

“What could they have possibly been thinking when the international limit for their air space extends 12 miles out from the coast? It was a brazen act, a violation of international law and shouldn’t be tolerated. It’s like saying you can’t fly in the middle of the ocean,” he said.

The RC-135 flights are not covert spy missions, Ernst noted; flight plans are filed.

“They’re out there doing there job, and they have a right to do that. The Koreans have a right to come out and have a look, but they don’t have the right to come out and join up with the aircraft. It’s pushing up against the normal laws of safety,” he said.

Foreign fighter pilots intercepting U.S. surveillance aircraft is a fairly common occurrence, said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Jack Kovacs, who flew during the height of the Cold War in the 1970s in the RB-47H, the RC-135’s predecessor.

“Generally speaking, it doesn’t bother you when a so-called enemy fighter comes up to you,” Kovacs said. Kovacs said enemy fighters wouldn’t shoot an aircraft unless it was flying in their territory, and a crash would prove it.

Intercepts become a concern when pilots fly too close, he said, and planes collide.

In April 2001 over the South China Sea, a Chinese pilot clipped a Navy EP-3E surveillance aircraft, which made an emergency landing on Hainan Island, China. Chinese officials detained the crew for 11 days, creating an international incident. The Chinese fighter pilot reportedly died when his jet crashed at sea.

In the mid-1960s, he said, a North Korean fighter fired on an RB-47 out of Yokota Air Base, Japan. Fire erupted, but the plane was able to return to Yokota.

Crews generally were under orders that if a North Korean or other unpredictable fighters approached, they were to abort their mission and return another day.

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