North Korea’s “Christmas gift” must have gotten lost in the mail.
A North Korean missile test that had been widely anticipated over the holiday didn’t occur, at least not yet.
But U.S. military surveillance aircraft — including RC-135 Rivet Joint and Cobra Ball jets based at Offutt Air Force Base — have been patrolling the skies near North Korea in recent days, according to aircraft spotters. So has a Georgia-based E-8C JSTARS airplane and an RQ-4 Global Hawk pilotless aircraft.
It’s not clear whether they are related to North Korea’s threat in early December to send the U.S. a “Christmas gift” if the Trump administration failed to restart stalled arms reduction talks. The military does not comment on reconnaissance flights.
The “Christmas gift” has widely been interpreted as referring to a rocket test — perhaps at the Sohae test stand, one of several sites where analysts have noted lots of recent activity.
That includes recent engine tests, the movement of trucks to and from the test site, and the clearing of snow from a launch pad and roads leading to it, said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.
“Sohae’s active. But what does ‘active’ mean?” Lewis said Thursday during a telephone interview with The World-Herald. “We’re all a little unsure. The natural thing to do is up your readiness.”
Aircraft spotters and monitors of public air traffic control have made note of multiple reconnaissance flights in recent days.
Aircraft Spots, a Twitter account with 58,700 followers that tracks military flights, noted Cobra Ball flights over the Sea of Japan — which separates Japan from the Korean Peninsula — Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
The job of the Offutt-based Cobra Balls is to watch and listen to missile launches in order to glean useful intelligence, a mission they have performed since the 1960s. They operate out of Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. Two of the 55th Wing’s three Cobra Balls have been at Kadena since Dec. 20, Aircraft Spots reported.
The account also noted Offutt-based Rivet Joints flying over the Sea of Japan and the Korean Peninsula on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Rivet Joint crews fly with foreign-language specialists who monitor radio communications on the ground. At least two have been flying out of Kadena.
E-8C JSTARS and RQ-4 Global Hawks also have been flying over South Korea almost daily, Aircraft Spots said.
Meari, a North Korean propaganda site, has denounced the “constant surveillance,” according to a report Thursday by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
“We are closely watching hostile forces’ provocative schemes,” Meari said, as quoted in the Yonhap article. “They should know that our patience also has a limit.”
All four types of planes routinely monitor electronic signals from North Korea, said Robert Hopkins III, a historian of Air Force surveillance flights and former 55th Wing pilot. He recalls flying Christmas Day missions off Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula during the Cold War, in anticipation of missile tests by the former Soviet Union.
“The increase in flights is not unreasonable given the (North Korean) ‘threat’ of a Christmas present,” he said in an email. He compared it to increased police presence if a synagogue were threatened.
“The cops aren’t the provocation,” he said. “They’re the response.”
Lewis said it’s not entirely clear whether the U.S. has actually stepped up surveillance of North Korea.
“It certainly seems different. But is that just because we’re looking?” he said. “It really is hard to know.”
Lewis attaches little significance to the lack of any missile tests on Christmas Day. He is certain that Kim’s pause in such tests is almost over.
“The North Koreans have made it clear: The moratorium is up,” he said. “Something is going to fly. It’s a matter of what, and when.”
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Offutt Air Force Base is named for Lt. Jarvis Offutt — the first airman from Omaha killed in World War I.
1891: The area now known as Offutt Air Force Base was first commissioned as Fort Crook, an Army post to house cavalry soldiers and their horses. This photo, circa 1905, shows mounted officers and infantry troops assembling on the parade ground. The officers' quarters in the background still stand today, but the closing of Offutt's stables in 2010 ended the base's equine tradition.
1946: The World's Fair of Aviation was held at Offutt Air Force Base, including a race between a 1912 airplane and 1912 automobile. The 1912 airplane easily won, but provided sharp contrast to the sleek, modern "600-mile-per-hour aircraft" on display at the fair.
1952: Painter Frank Anania places the final bolt in the SAC emblem, newly placed on the command building at Strategic Air Command headquarters. After the command was created in 1946, SAC headquarters were moved from Andrews Field, Maryland, to Offutt Air Force Base. SAC's high-flying reconnaissance planes and bombers would go on to play a global role from the onset of the Cold War through the last bomb of the Persian Gulf War.
1956: The Strategic Air Command "nerve center" gets a new headquarters building at Offutt Air Force Base.
1957: Even since the late 1950s, Strategic Air Command has been holding open house events at Offutt Air Force Base to display and demonstrate aircraft for civilian visitors. Each year, the open house and air show at Offutt features aerial acts or reenactments, static displays, and booths showcasing military history and capabilities.
1959: The first SAC museum consisted of a section of abandoned runway near the north edge of Offutt Air Force Base outside of Bellevue. However, the outdoor display left the aircraft vulnerable to the elements.
1961: A Royal Air Force bomber crashes at Offutt Air Force Base. Beginning in the late 1950s, the RAF maintained small detachment and service facility for Vulcan bomber planes at Offutt, often participating in defense exercises and demonstrations at the base until their retirement and deactivation in 1982. This plane crashed at take-off at the northwest end of the main runway and then slid across Highway 73-75. All seven passengers survived.
1962: Just weeks after the Cuban missile crisis, President John F. Kennedy visits Offutt Air Force Base, accompanied by Gen. Thomas Power of Strategic Air Command, right.
1962: Actor Rock Hudson receives a B-52 bomber briefing during a visit to Omaha and Offutt Air Force Base. He began filming "A Gathering of Eagles" in May of that year.
1967: An early photograph of the Ehrling Bergquist military medical clinic in Bellevue. The clinic has served Offutt Air Force Base since 1966 and was remodeled in 2013, including a grand staircase, larger physical therapy and mental health areas, and a more private mammography waiting area.
1970: The world's largest aircraft at that time, the C5 Galaxy was displayed as part of the open house for civilian visitors at Offutt Air Force Base.
1989: A conference room in the SAC underground command post at Offutt Air Force Base. Strategic Air Command would be formally disestablished in 1992, but Offutt would remain the headquarters for the new United States Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM).
1992: The Strategic Air Command Memorial Chapel holds a Sunday morning service as a reminder of those who have given their service and those who have died during the Command's 46-year history. Founded in in 1946, the command was dissolved in a ceremony at Offutt Air Force Base.
1997: OPPD worker Craig Azure of Ashland holds a power line up across Platteview Road near Highway 50 so that an Albatross airplane can fit under it. After SAC was dissolved, the museum moved into a new indoor facility in 1998. Airplanes were moved from their old location at Offutt Air Force Base to their new and current home near Mahoney State Park off I-80.
2000: The parade grounds gazebo at Offutt is dedicated in honor of Airman 1st Class Warren T. Willis, who was killed in an aircraft accident the previous December.
2000: President Bill Clinton speaks at a rally at Offutt Air Force Base.
2003: More than 300 anti-nuclear protesters gather outside Kinney Gate at Offutt Air Force Base. The rally was part of a weekend of protest against nuclear weapons, and was organized in response to an extensive nuclear arsenal review being held at the base.
2006: Vice President Dick Cheney greets service men and women following a speech at Offutt Air Force Base's Minuteman missile in Bellevue.
2012: Dignitaries clap along to an armed forces medley as ground is broken for the new U. S. Strategic Command Headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base. From left: Neb. Rep. Adrian Smith, Rep. Lee Terry, Neb. Governor Dave Heineman, General C. Robert Kehler, Commander USStratcom, Sen. Ben Nelson, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, and Mayor of Bellevue, Rita Sanders.
2012: Chris Shotton created this thank you message to the airmen and troops flying in and out of Offutt Air Force Base. Employees of area Walmart stores have been writing giant messages in fields near Highway 370 for years.
2013: Senior Airman Kevin Chapman works the desk at the new Public Health Clinic located in the Ehrling Bergquist military medical clinic.
2014: The new MERLIN SS200m Aircraft Birdstrike Avoidance Radar System, with the control tower in the background, photographed at Offutt Air Force Base. The system was moved here from Afghanistan in order to help detect large flocks and prevent damages to aircraft from bids, which cost the Air Force millions of dollars each year.
2015: An aerial photo from late February of the construction site for StratCom's new $1.2 billion headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base. Despite numerous delays and setbacks, the building would be completed in 2018, six years after construction began. StratCom would then spend the next year outfitting the structure with more than $600 million worth of high-tech communications and security gear.
2016: President Barack Obama arrives in Omaha after landing at Offutt Air Force Base. While in Omaha, Obama met with the family of Kerrie Orozco, visited a local teacher, and addressed a crowd of about 8,000 at Baxter Arena.
2019: This year, U.S. Strategic Command unveiled a new Command and Control Facility located at Offutt Air Force Base. The "battle deck," shown here, features computer workstations, soundproofing, and the ability to connect instantly to the White House and Pentagon.
2019: Luke Thomas and Air Force Tech Sgt. Vanessa Vidaurre at a flooded portion of Offutt Air Force Base. In March, historic flooding included breaches of two levees protecting the base from the Missouri River.