Spy plane’s flight hints at North’s weapons test

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Spy plane’s flight hints at North’s weapons test

A U.S. military surveillance plane flew over South Korea’s East Sea on Tuesday morning, a possible sign that North Korea is preparing for another weapons test.

Aircraft Spots, a Twitter account that tracks military aircraft worldwide, said a U.S. Air Force RC-135S plane departed the Kadena Air Base, a U.S. Air Force base in Okinawa, Japan, on Tuesday morning for a mission in the East Sea.

An RC-135S aircraft’s main role is to collect optical and electronic data on ballistic missile targets, which it is capable of detecting as far as several hundred kilometers away.

South Korean military officials said it appeared the aircraft was deployed to monitor signs of a submarine-launched ballistic missile test from North Korea, without saying whether the regime was actually preparing for one.

The U.S. Air Force has deployed surveillance planes to the Korean Peninsula multiple times before, usually before North Korea’s weapons test.

The RC-135U Combat Sent, another U.S. spy plane, had arrived at the U.S. air base in Okinawa on Oct. 29 from the Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, just two days before Pyongyang carried out what it called its latest test of a “super-large” multiple rocket launcher system.

Military sources assume the RC-135U detected signs of the multiple rocket launcher system when it was moved by a transporter erector launcher.

One South Korean military official said the fact that the United States was deploying its surveillance planes to the Korean Peninsula was a sign that it’s reacting “sensitively” to long-range missile threats from the North, such as that of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), leaving open the possibility that the regime could test an ICBM, as well.

If past examples give any hints, an RC-135U flew near the Korean Peninsula in late 2017 around the time Pyongyang tested a Hwasong-15 ICBM on Nov. 29, the last time the regime ever tested an ICBM. Since then, the North has abided by its self-declared moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests as denuclearization talks with the United States continue.

The RC-135U and RC-135S have flown around the peninsula around the time of other weapons test as well, such as in May, July and August, when the North tested short-range ballistic missiles and rocket launcher systems.

A U.S. E-8C Joint Stars surveillance aircraft, which was often used in the past to detect signs of an ICBM launch from North Korea, was said to have departed the Kadena Air Base on Tuesday morning for an East China Sea mission, according to Aircraft Spots, but the aircraft tracker made no mention of it flying toward South Korea.

BY LEE KEUN-PYUNG, LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]
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