Rivet Joint and Cobra Ball: The Electronic Spy Planes Watching For North Korea's “Christmas Gift”

Sebastien Roblin

North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Ri Thae Song was twirling his proverbial mustache when on December 3, 2019 he promised a ‘Christmas Gift” this holiday season due to the failure of long-stalled negotiations with Washington to bear fruit.

This threat is believed to herald a new North Korean weapons test, possibly of an improved intercontinental-class ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of hitting targets in North America. It’s feared North Korea may develop a long-range solid-fuel rocket that could be launched with very little warning, unlike the liquid-fuel Hwasong-14 rocket launched July 4, 2017.

The U.S. military is mustering its aerial spy planes in anticipation. Flight trackers have revealed extensive activity by U.S. military spy planes flying daily patrols at around 30,000 feet over South Korea, including Air Force E-8 JSTARS airborne command posts, RQ-4B surveillance drones and Navy EP-3 signal reconnaissance planes. 

However, the main effort has come from Air Force RC-135S, V and W electronic spy planes based on the now antiquated Boeing 707 airliner. Despite having been refitted at the turn of the century with more efficient F108 turbofans, these dinosaurs remain difficult to maintain and expensive to operate—but bring unparalleled snooping capabilities into the fold.

Rivet Joint: Aerial Snooper, Electromagnetic Spy

The Air Force currently operates 22 RC-135s in the 55th Wing based in Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. Two of the three distinct types of RC-135s have been active over Korea.

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