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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Friday, September 1, 2000

Intelligence assets convene
on launch anniversary

By Wayne Specht
Misawa bureau chief

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — U.S. intelligence aircraft and a missile-monitoring ship visited bases in Japan this week, coinciding with the second anniversary of North Korea’s Aug. 31, 1998, launch of a Taepodong-1 missile over Japan.

In 1998, North Korea launched a missile over northern Japan. The missile eventually splashed down in the Pacific Ocean east of Japan. The launch startled the Asian region, serving notice that North Korea was developing advanced versions of missiles.

Korean and Japanese news services Thursday were not reporting any suspicious activity involving missile programs in North Korea, or other Asian nations.

U.S. military spokesmen in the Pacific do not customarily comment on the missions of such types of aircraft and ships when they visit the region.

The USNS Observation Island, a detection and tracking ship belonging to the Military Sealift Command, was docked at the Sasebo Naval Base, Japan, over the weekend.

Operated by the Navy for the U.S. Air Force Intelligence Agency, the Observation Island is fitted with ballistic missile-tracking radar dubbed Cobra Judy, according to Jane’s All the World’s Navies resources. The Observation Island is based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

The Observation Island also was in Sea of Japan waters in 1998, and again during 1999’s anniversary of the North Korean missile launch. Intelligence observers believed North Korea was preparing to test a follow-up Taepodong-2 version of the missile, but no launch took place.

"The USNS Observation Island left Sasebo Naval Base on Saturday," said Sasebo base spokeswoman Yoko Aramaki. "The purpose of her visit was to provide the crew the opportunity for rest and relaxation. Additionally, the ship took on standard supplies."

Aramaki did not say where the Observation Island was headed.

At Misawa Air Base in northern Honshu, a pair of RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft belonging to the 55th Wing, Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., left the base midweek after arriving here last weekend.

Belonging to the Air Combat Command, the aircraft are part of a U.S. fleet of specialized airborne intelligence-collection aircraft.

Crew members wearing flight suits with patches of the 55th Wing’s 45th and 97th Reconnaissance Squadrons have been seen on the base this week.

Patches on the uniform of one first lieutenant indicated he is a member of the Cobra Ball aircraft, one of only three highly modified versions of the KC-135 Stratotanker.

According to Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft directory, the Cobra Ball aircraft is fitted with sensors and long-range infrared telescopes used for tracking ballistic missile launches.

The aircraft also came to Misawa last August when it was feared North Korea might launch a Taepodong-2 missile.

"Signals-intelligence aircraft (such as Cobra Ball and Rivet Joint) become a vital part of tactical operations, such as those in the Balkans and around Iraq," said Martin Streetly, author of military aircraft profiles at the Jane’s Web site. "They are increasingly used as both real-time threat warning and targeting sensor and intelligence tools for compiling electronic orders of battle."

The Cobra Ball aircraft, Jane’s says, is increasingly being used as not just a means of monitoring potential hostile missile development work, but as an important part of a theater ballistic missile defense system.

Japan’s Kyodo News Agency on Wednesday quoted a Japanese Foreign Ministry official saying Chinese vice premier Qian Qichen believes North Korea is likely to maintain its freeze on missile tests to allow inter-Korean dialogue about reunification issues.

Staff writer Greg Tyler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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