Air Force General Says His Planes Are Keeping An Eye Out For North Korea’s “Christmas Gift”

The general said that he expects a North Korean test of a “long-range ballistic missile,” such as an ICBM, in the coming weeks.

byJoseph Trevithick|
North Korea photo


The United States has stepped up aerial intelligence gathering around North Korea, including using a newly modified RC-135V Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft. This comes amid threats from the regime in Pyongyang to send the U.S. government a "Christmas gift," very likely in the form of a long-range ballistic missile test. The U.S. military has also said it is developing options for how it might respond to such a launch, including reviewing plans that it developed during the last period of significantly heightened tensions between the two countries in 2017. American officials have said they could turn again to the strategy they employed two years ago, which included shows of force in the air, at sea, and on the ground.

Aircraft spotters using online tracking software have been recording the uptick in aerial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations near North Korea since at least the beginning of December. On Dec. 3, 2019, Ri Thae Song, North Korea's Vice Foreign Minister of U.S. affairs, had made the "Christmas gift" remark, which the regime in Pyongyang followed up with a "strategic" test of a large rocket motor at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground five days later.

The North Koreans have had a self-imposed moratorium on a long-range missile and nuclear weapons tests since 2017, as a period of detente emerged between it and the United States. This goodwill eroded steadily following the collapse of a second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in February 2019.

"There’s a pattern that you see with the North Koreans is their rhetoric precedes activity, which precedes a launch," U.S. Air Force General Charles Brown, head of Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), the service's top command in the Pacific region, told reporters on Dec. 17, 2019. "We’re watching.”

The U.S. Air Force's RC-135 variants have been especially prevalent. RC-135V/W Rivet Joints have been observed flying near North Korea, including along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating it from South Korea, on multiple occasions in the past few weeks. Even from South Korean airspace or while flying over international waters in the East Sea, the aircraft can still use their sensors to surveil deep into North Korean territory.

The Rivet Joints are among the Air Force's most capable intelligence collection platforms, being able to scoop up a variety of signals intelligence information, including monitoring an opponent's communications. The ability to detect, categorize, and geolocate emitters of various kinds, including air defense radars and communications nodes, also gives the planes an impressive ability to contribute to the development of an "electronic order of battle" of potential enemy forces in a particular area. 

The RC-135V/Ws fly with large crews of at least 26 individuals, which includes analysts and linguists, who can begin to process the information gathered immediately. The planes can also send the valuable data they collect on to other assets, including command centers in the region or ground forces, in near-real-time. One particular RC-135V that was flying in the region recently was carrying a new antenna on top, which could be to further improve the aircraft's communications and data transfer capabilities. The War Zone was first to report on that aircraft, which has the serial number 64-14844, and its recent modifications, which you can read about in more detail here.

The recently modified RC-135V, serial number 64-14844, at March Air Reserve Base (ARB) in California earlier in December 2019. The red arrow points to the new antenna., Dan Stijovich

One of the Air Force's three RC-135S Cobra Ball aircraft also flew missions in the East Sea on Dec. 5 and Dec. 12, 2019. This is hardly surprising under the circumstances given that, unlike the more general-purpose Rivet Joints, the Cobra Balls are specifically configured to gather telemetry and other electronic intelligence, as well as visual imagery, during missile launches. 

RC-135s haven't been the only ones taking part in the increased snooping around North Korea recently. At least one Air Force RQ-4B Global Hawk conducted a mission from within South Korea. These drones fly at extremely high altitudes and can use slanted flight patterns to look deep into a denied area such as North Korea using powerful multi-spectral cameras and radar imaging systems.

The Air Force isn't the only service involved in the intelligence and surveillance activities, either. Aircraft spotter and friend of The War Zone

@AircraftSpots picked up on one flight involving an interesting U.S. Navy P-3C Orion on Dec. 12.

P-3Cs assigned to Patrol Squadron 40 (VP-40), based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Washington, completed what had been the last operational deployment of Orions assigned to a patrol squadron in November, but the aircraft remain in service in more specialized roles. The aircraft flying over South Korea carries the Bureau Number 161588.

In October, plane spotters caught this same aircraft at Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa not wearing any particular unit markings and equipped with an AN/APS-149 Littoral Surveillance Radar System (LSRS) mounted in a gondola-shaped pod under the fuselage. Despite its name, the LSRS, which has synthetic aperture and ground moving target indicator (GMTI) functionality, is capable of intelligence gathering overland, as well.

A P-3C equipped with the LSRS pod., USAF

Due to the still limited number of P-8A Poseidon aircraft equipped with the new Advanced Airborne Sensor (AAS) pod, a combination intended to eventually replace the P-3Cs with the LSRS, the older aircraft have continued providing this capability in the interim, according to the P-3 Orion Research Group.

The recent increase in aerial surveillance of North Korea almost certainly reflects a larger uptick in intelligence activity aimed at the country. The Korean Peninsula has historically been one of the most heavily monitored places on earth by the U.S. military, as well as the U.S. intelligence community. A host of other assets, including submarines, satellites, and agents on the ground, are almost certainly part of the mix of tools the United States is employing to gather information and insights about Pyongyuang's impending missile test plans. You can read more about how the U.S. government keeps its eyes on North Korea in this past in-depth War Zone story.

General Brown, the Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) commander, told reporters that the U.S. still isn't exactly sure what form Pyongyang's "Christmas gift" will take, so the increased intelligence collection is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. There's also no clear indications about when the increasingly inevitable launch might occur, despite the holiday-themed remarks.

"I would expect is some type of long-range ballistic missile would be the gift," Brown said. "It’s just a matter of, does it come on Christmas Eve? Does it come on Christmas Day? Does it come in after the new year?”

“I think there’s also a possibility that the self-imposed moratorium may go away and nothing happens right away. He [Kim Jong Un] announces it, but then doesn’t shoot," he continued. "Our job is to backstop the diplomatic efforts. If the diplomatic efforts kind of fall apart, we gotta be ready."

What might happen if North Korea does go through with its launch, which seems to be the much more likely outcome given Pyongyang's renewed hostility to the United States and even Trump personally, remains to be seen. Brown specifically called back to U.S. military activities in 2017, a recent highwater mark for U.S.-North Korean tensions, which saw various shows of force that promoted fiery threats from Kim's regime.

"There's a lot of stuff we did in 2017 that we can dust off very quickly and be ready to use," he explained. "We are looking at all the things we've done in the past...all the complete options."

In the meantime, the United States will clearly continue to monitor North Korea extremely closely so as to be as prepared as possible to respond in some fashion when Kim's Christmas gift finally arrives.

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