When North Korea launches a monster missile as it did last week, Omaha eyes are watching, and Omaha ears are listening.
The Hwasong-15 flew higher and is more powerful than any rocket Kim Jong Un’s regime has flown in the past, capable of reaching perhaps as far as New York or Washington, D.C.
Senior U.S. military officials knew all that and much more about the missile quickly, in large part because of Air Force jets from the Offutt-based 55th Wing that almost certainly were flying in the area at the time.
As a matter of policy, the Air Force doesn’t discuss current operations. But public air-traffic control feeds streamed over the Internet show one of the 55th Wing’s three RC-135S Cobra Ball missile-detection jets airborne at almost the same time as the launch last Wednesday, though the jet’s transponder wasn’t sending out its location. Experienced watchers of those feeds often interpret that to mean the plane is flying operations in the western Pacific Ocean, near North Korea.
The jets are flown by air crews from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron and staffed by analysts from the 97th Intelligence Squadron, both part of the 55th Wing. In the Pacific, crews are deployed to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.
The Cobra Ball’s sensors pick up the sights and sounds of missile launches. Besides photographing every launch with sensitive digital cameras, they can also grab performance data transmitted from the rocket about its speed, power, altitude and other critical information. The data is sent promptly to top officials at the Pentagon and U.S. Strategic Command.
“What the Cobra Ball collects goes to (National Security Advisor) H.R. McMaster, (Defense Secretary) Gen. (Jim) Mattis and (StratCom Commander) Gen. (John) Hyten right away,” said Robert Hopkins III, author and historian of reconnaissance aircraft and a former 55th Wing pilot. “This provides the kind of immediate intel that allows high-level decision-makers to make decisions.”
The Cobra Ball is part of a network of sensors collecting data and sending it to StratCom’s round-the-clock Global Operations Center beneath its Offutt Air Force Base headquarters. That network includes satellites, Navy ships and ground-based monitors.
“Having the suite of intelligence capabilities we do — our leaders are just so much better informed,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, in California, and author of the “Arms Control Wonk” blog.
Cobra Ball is a key part of the detection system, and it has been for decades.
During the Cold War era, Cobra Ball worked in complete secrecy for the Offutt-based Strategic Air Command from stormy Shemya Island, in the Aleutians. Crews on the isolated base flew routine orbits and also responded to alerts when the Soviet Union tested ICBMs in far eastern Russia.
“The klaxon would blow. We’d jump in the plane and get up in the air,” said Kingdon Hawes of Omaha, an electronics warfare officer who worked the flights in the late 1960s.
In those days, the pilots would trace the rocket’s trajectory in grease pencil on the inside of the cockpit windows, for later study by analysts on the ground.
The Air Force released no details about Cobra Ball’s operations in the western Pacific last week. But an unclassified account of a similar mission five years ago, written by 55th Wing leaders for an awards nomination, gives insight into recent Cobra Ball operations near North Korea.
In November 2012, intelligence sources indicated that North Korea — identified only as “a rogue nation” in the 55th Wing account — was preparing to launch a rocket and put a satellite into orbit in violation of United Nations sanctions.
The squadron quickly deployed two Cobra Ball jets to Japan and set up round-the-clock alert schedules for their crews.
The jets had to fly at the same time, and one plane’s orbit had to be below the missile’s expected path in order to observe the launch as early as possible. But that orbit also placed the aircraft within range of North Korean surface-to-air missiles and fighter planes.
The crews had to improvise a solution to unexpected communication problems that could have sabotaged the mission, according to the 55th Wing narrative. They also had to overcome “extensive and complicated deception tactics” by the North Koreans. The rocket was launched Dec. 12, 2012, 19 days after the Cobra Balls began their surveillance.
The exhausting effort paid off with what the narrative described as a collection that “delivered unparalleled precision data to the far reaches of the intelligence community” and received a mention in the president’s daily briefing.
The squadron was awarded the Air Force Association’s Jerome F. O’Malley Award as “Reconnaissance Crew of the Year.”
But the squadron’s mission faces a persistent headwind as crews deal with planes often twice as old as the airmen inside.
With tensions high over nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran, Hopkins worries about entrusting such a critical mission to 55-year-old airplanes that are showing their age. There are no plans to replace them.
In 2016, the three RC-135S Cobra Balls returned from missions too broken to fly 23 percent of the time, one of the highest such rates in the Air Force’s fleet of geriatric jets. The planes have suffered several close scrapes in recent years.
“We can’t afford to lose a single Cobra Ball,” Hopkins said. “There aren’t going to be any more.”