North Korea intercept show dangers of reconnaissance flights in tense times
March 18, 2003
It’s been almost two years since the day Lt. Shane Osborn thought he and his crew were going to die.
Osborn and his 23 crewmembers were flying a routine reconnaissance mission April 1, 2001, when a Chinese F-8 fighter clipped their Navy EP-3E Aries II.
The Aries plunged, nose first, for 7,500 feet, then dropped another 5,000 feet while Osborn desperately wrestled for control.
As the crew scrambled to destroy classified material, Osborn nursed the crippled plane to an emergency landing on the southern Chinese island of Hainan — where it was detained for 11 days, creating an international incident.
Yet, the naval aviator said he could not imagine anything more menacing than what happened March 2, when four North Korean fighters intercepted an Air Force RC-135S Cobra Ball reconnaissance aircraft.
“The first thing I thought,” Osborn said, “was how scared the RC-135 crewmembers must have been … I was just glad they made it home alive that day.”
The unarmed Kadena-based aircraft was on a routine surveillance mission over the Sea of Japan when two MiG-29s and two MiG-23s intercepted it about 150 miles off North Korea’s coast.
One North Korean pilot steered his jet to within 50 feet of the Cobra Ball and motioned with his hands for the aircraft to land, said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis.
The intercept — which involved a MiG using its target acquisition radar to “light up” the RC-135 — and the pilot’s actions “suggest it was a planned attempt to force” the surveillance plane to land in North Korea, Davis said.
It’s not unusual for pilots of foreign countries to intercept U.S. reconnaissance planes flying off their coasts, current and former pilots told Stars and Stripes last week. The key, they say, is how the U.S. pilots react to these close encounters.
Being intercepted “gets your attention,” said Lt. Gen. Thomas C. Waskow, an F-15 pilot who has logged more than 900 combat hours and knows what’s it like to be intercepted by a pilot from another air force.
“The adrenaline pumps. … you have to be very precise in everything that you do,” said Waskow, commander of U.S. Forces Japan and the 5th Air Force. “The first thing you do is check where you are, make sure you’re flying in international airspace.”
International law lets all nations declare a 12-mile radius outside their borders as their national airspace. Pilots from other nations may not fly over that area without consent, Waskow said.
The U.S. pilots were 150 miles off North Korea’s coast. Normally, North Korea doesn’t fly there, Waskow said.
“We do as a matter of course, but they don’t, so it was rather strange that they chose to do that.”
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Robb Hoover felt there was a threat implied.
“They did not come out just to wave hello,” said the former electronic warfare officer, who flew reconnaissance missions in the 1960s and 1970s. “They had evil intent in mind.”
Like Waskow, Hoover noted that North Koreans rarely fly over the ocean off their coast. That they went 150 miles for the intercept, he said, was “pretty big stuff.”
When asked if the North Koreans were breaking any rules by intercepting the American RC-135S, Waskow said: “As long as they stay outside of a distance, I don’t believe there’s any international accepted norm, just outside a safe distance from another airplane.”
But when one MiG fighter comes within 50 feet of a U.S. plane, “that’s probably a little close,” Waskow said.
And, Waskow said, he wouldn’t follow the North Korean’s hand signals to land.
“If I’m flying a commercial airliner, or … a military-flagged aircraft, and I’m intercepted, I have no obligation to follow what they tell me to do, as long as I’m in international airspace,” he said.
U.S. military pilots must adhere to international flight rules and depending on the type of aircraft — armed or unarmed — on rules of engagement approved by the Secretary of Defense, Waskow said. Currently, those rules are “based on the right of self-defense.”
But do all countries follow the same rules?
“That’s where the problem becomes a serious one,” Waskow said. “If I’m flying my F-15, get lost and a Japanese F-15 intercepts me, I know he is going to follow the rules precisely.
“Some countries, which I won’t go into, I don’t know what they’re going to do.”
“Landing in North Korea would not have been an option” for any U.S. surveillance crews, said Osborn, who was awarded the Navy Distinguished Flying Cross, for his actions during the 2001 incident.
When Osborn opted to land in Hainan, he said he wanted to save lives. But had the incident occurred with North Koreans over the Sea of Japan, he said, he would have ditched the plane. North Korean intercepts are “completely different” from Chinese ones, Osborn said.
He referred to past encounters with North Koreans:
• In 1969, the last time a North Korean fighter intercepted a U.S. aircraft, a MiG shot down a Navy EC-121 surveillance plane over international waters, killing all 31 aboard.
• In 1968, North Korean torpedo boats forced the crew of the surveillance ship USS Pueblo to follow them to port. Pueblo crewmembers reported spending the next 11 months in a prison camp, where interrogators tortured them.
• In 1965, two North Korean MiG-17s fired, without warning, on an RB-47 over the Sea of Japan. Though severely damaged, the crippled plane returned to Yokota Air Base, Japan, where its flight had originated.
“Knowing the history of that country and their reaction to our aircraft in the past,” Osborn said, he would have been “terrified” had he been aboard the RC-135 during the recent intercept.
If North Koreans launched for an intercept, said retired Air Force Maj. George Back, an electronic warfare officer who flew missions from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s, “it was white-knuckle time.”
Reconnaissance crews in his time knew to leave the area immediately, said Back, who was aboard the RB-47 that almost was downed in 1965.
And they didn’t respond well to hand signals.
“We’d give them the finger … or flash them a Playboy centerfold,” Back said. “In the days we were flying … there was no way in hell an enemy fighter could force a reconnaissance crew to land. … Our rules were, you would cause your airplane to crash before you’d land in enemy territory.”
For retired Air Force Lt. Col Robert Krist, hand signals to land in enemy territory was commonplace.
The former RC-135 aviator, who flew recon missions in the 1980s and 1990s, said he expected to see intercept aircraft “on darn near every sortie,” in every theater around the world.
Many times, Krist said, other nations’ pilots used internationally recognized hand signals to indicate they wanted the plane to land or follow them. They’d point their thumb down, lower their landing gear or point their index finger forward as if to say, “Follow me and land,” he said. Pilots would lower their landing gear to give an affirmative response.
“Never have any U.S. RC-135 aircraft responded by putting landing gear down,” said Krist, who, before retiring in 2001, was operations officer for the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. Offutt’s 55th Reconnaissance Wing is the parent command for all Air Force RC-135 aircraft.
Krist said he politely would salute or wave, but keep on flying his mission, paying no heed to pilot requests to land.
Osborn said he couldn’t discuss current rules of engagement reconnaissance crews must follow when foreign pilots intercept them. “What I can say is obviously we don’t want to be intercepted by North Korean aircraft. Once they’re on you … there’s a limit to what you can do.”
Two days after his 1965 encounter with the North Korean MiGs, Back said, his crew returned to the air in a replacement RB-47 and made a run from south of China’s Hainan Island to take radar pictures of the coast from North Vietnam all the way up to the Demilitarized Zone between South and North Korea.
He had two U.S. Navy fighters at his wing.
That trip was unusual, Back said, because surveillance aircraft usually fly alone.
“In our normal missions, we never flew escorted, because we always flew over international waters. Our flights were never provocative.”
Historically, reconnaissance aircraft flying peacetime missions do so without armed escorts, Krist said. To send up warplanes every time a reconnaissance aircraft goes up sends the wrong message, he noted.
“How would we react if another nation performed reconnaissance off our coast with an armed escort of MiGs? Every nation has the right to do reconnaissance in international airspace, but to provoke another nation by having war birds along is not the right way. We need to project an image of peace.”
Sending armed escorts with every reconnaissance flight would be a “monumental faux pas,” he said.
But is the Pentagon considering changing the policy given current climate with North Korea?
Spokesman Davis said the Defense Department takes “appropriate measures” to safeguard recon flights but declined to discuss specifics.
Waskow also would not comment on a recent New York Times report that said Pentagon and Pacific Command officials are working out plans to protect reconnaissance flights.
He said only: “We will do so because we reserve the right to do that.”
As to whether reconnaissance flights in the region need to be escorted, Waskow said that’s a decision for the Secretary of Defense.
“If directed to do, we will do so,” he said.
Osborn said unarmed reconnaissance planes are larger and much slower than fighter jets, making them easy targets.
“There’s usually nobody out there to protect them. They’re pretty much … alone, risking it all to collect intelligence information.”
Despite their vulnerability, recon crews have backup, Krist said.
“The mothers and fathers of these crewmembers need to realize that never is a reconnaissance mission done without fighter aircraft available to respond,” he said.
“If there had been a necessity to scramble fighters, they would have been there in a New York minute.”
When asked why no fighters responded when the MiGs shadowed the RC-135 for more than 20 minutes, Krist said, “We all signed up to do the job knowing the potential threat of someone intervening and shooting down your aircraft.”