U.S. spy planes spent Christmas tracking North Korea

12.30.2019.

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The E-8C refueling from a KC-135 Stratotanker. / U.S. Air Force Photo
Watch by Staff Sgt. Chris Drzazgowski / DVIDS is licensed under U.S. Air Force USGS / Public Domain

Known for tracking Santa Clause in the wee hours of Christmas, the United States fielded four surveillance planes over the Korean peninsula Wednesday, according to aviation sources cited by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

North Korea had threatened a “Christmas gift” if the U.S. failed to make concessions in nuclear talks, generating tensions that filled the news void over the holidays.

The U.S. flew four aircraft, the RC-135W Rivet Joint, E-8C, RQ-4 Global Hawk and RC-135S Cobra Ball, near the country on Dec. 24-25, according to the reports.

The White House backed its vigilance with veiled threat from the president’s tweets and national security adviser Robert O’Brien.

The United States has many “tools in its tool kit” to respond should North Korea’s “gift” be an ICBM test, O’Brien said on ABC’s “This Week.” “We’ll reserve judgment but the United States will take action as we do in these situations,” he said. “If Kim Jong Un takes that approach we’ll be extraordinarily disappointed, and we’ll demonstrate that disappointment.”

Related: Race with time: Analyst says urgent responses needed to looming N. Korean threatDecember 17, 2019

“Let’s see what happens. Everybody’s got surprises for me, but let’s see what happens. I handle them as they come along,” President Donald Trump told reporters Tuesday in Palm Beach, Fla. “We’ll see what happens,” Trump continued. “Maybe it’s a nice present. maybe it’s a present where he sends me a beautiful vase as opposed to a missile test.”

The surveillance platforms reportedly included the following:

The RC-135W Rivet Joint is modified 1960s-era Boeing 707 airliner equipped with sensors to “detect, identify and geolocate signals throughout the electromagnetic spectrum,” according to the U.S. Air Force. The RC-135W fleet is based at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.

The E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft is another Boeing 707 with side looking radar which can track up to 600 targets on the ground at ranges of 150 miles.

The RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle is equipped with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, digital cameras, electro-optical sensors, and electronics designed to snoop on the electromagnetic emissions of adversaries. The Global Hawk can fly at altitudes of 65,000 feet for hours at a time.

The RC-135S Cobra Ball. Cobra Ball is also based on the Boeing 707 and is equipped with optical and electronic sensors to observe ballistic missile tests.

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