This Contemporary Historical Examination of Current Operations (CHECO) report addresses the events leading to the shootdown of the Navy EC-121, immediate U.S. Air Force reaction, search efforts, and retaliatory planning. The insidious nature of the current North Korean Government continues to pose a serious threat to the security of South Korea, and to the policy of the United States. Its actions, while not directed by an overall Asian Communist policy, must be evaluated in relation to the threat imposed by all Asian Communist countries. Results obtained from incidents such as the destruction of the EC-121 have in the past given North Korea considerable prestige and recognition among Communist nations, and are used to justify its requests for more economic and military aid. There are no indications the policy will change. On-going studies in the realm of Joint Command and Control are being conducted within all military services in the Pacific Command to optimize the Allied posture to counter North Korean tactics. A lectern for surveillance, these plans could be tested again. (This report has been declassified).
With ideologies in conflict throughout the world, U.S. Air Force authorities continue their vigilance in devising new methods to collect information which may be, evaluated for intelligence purposes related to the United States national security. Of special significance in the overall reconnaissance effort is the collection and evaluation of electronic data.
Certain types of medium frequency (MF) electronic emissions and transmissions can be monitored best by airborne equipment. Other types can be gathered more effectively by ships operating on station for more extensive periods of time.
The United States Air Force has been conducting reconnaissance missions in the Far East and, specifically, in the Sea of Japan area since 1950. In 1969, there were approximately 190 such missions in the Sea of Japan through March–all without incident, without threat, and without any warning. All of these reconnaissance missions were coordinated, evaluated, and approved by appropriate military and senior civilian authorities of the U.S. Government. (1)
As part of the Peacetime Aerial Reconnaissance Program (PARPRO), the Navy flew regularly scheduled missions off the coast of North Korea. The call sign for this mission was BEGGAR SHADOW. No escort had been provided this mission prior to the shootdown of an EC-121M on 15 April 1969.
To conduct BEGGAR SHADOW missions, or before flying any reconnaissance missions of this type, concurrence was required at all levels of command in each of the services, as well as by the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Final approval was required at the highest level. After approval had been obtained, any changes, such as requests for armed escort, also required approval through the chain of command. If time or circumstances prevented this, any echelon of command could cancel the mission and later report the reason for this action. (2)
To utilize the PARPRO resources within PACOM, Fifth Air Force sponsored a Sensitive Area Reconnaissance Scheduling Meeting at the beginning of each month. These meetings were chaired by a representative from the CINCPAC Joint Reconnaissance Center and were attended by representatives from the operational units performing the missions involved. The principal objective of these meetings was to prevent duplication of effort and avoid omitting specific areas of concern. Additionally, any missions requiring coordination among the services, such as fighter escort and tanker support, would be coordinated at these meetings. Their geographic area of interest was WESTPAC North. The schedules derived from these meetings were key punched and transmitted by Automatic Digital Network (AUTODIN) to the PACAF Directorate of Systems (DOCS) where they were printed and distributed to the operational units and command authorities.
As an immediate, result of the Pueblo incident on 23 January 1968 the reconnaissance of North Korea (N.K.) was intensified. The USAF employed its RC–130 aircraft (nicknamed COMMANDO ROYAL). The commando ROYAL and BEGGAR SHADOW missions were similar. Their tracks in the vicinity of the Demilitarized Zone were well covered by friendly radar which could provide warning of impending intercept by North Korean aircraft. Some of the ROYAL and BEGGAR missions on tracks farther north, operated well outside the capability of friendly radar for a large portion of their missions, and well within the N.K. air defense environment.(4)
The threat to the safety of the COMMANDO ROYAL mission was recognized within PACAF and continuous appraisals of North Korean intentions were made as indicated in the correspondence of 21 August 1968 from the PACOM Air Defense Analysis Facility to PACAF’s Directorate of Operations Plans: (5)
“In response to your request for an estimate of current threat to COMMANDO ROYA tracks C3223, C-3224, and C3225, the following evaluation is submitted:
“a. The three specified tracks generally remain a safe distance from possible North Korean Air Force (NKAF) reaction except for their position at and near the eastern boundary of the DMZ.
Overland they are only five miles from communist territory, and further east and northeast they are only twenty miles offshore, over the Sea of Japan. In this area they are vulnerable to communist reaction.
“b. The over 400 MIGs in NKAF now include over 60 MIG-21s, most of which have been introduced since the Pueblo incident. There are also 11 primary GCI sites~ three of which would be tracking the U.S. aircraft ·at any one time. Further, there are a total
of 17 more Early Warning radar sites throughout North Korea that maintain constant surveillance of all U.S. and ROK flying patterns. This force has been training in air defense over the same area for over 13 years and they have the capability to launch any number of MIGs against real or imagined threats to their territory at any time with little or no warning.
“c. The current political pressure being applied against the United States by North Korea represents a more tenuous hazard to U.S. peripheral reconnaissance than the prevailing North Korean military capability. The increasing tempo of armed incidents between ground forces in the DMZ and the conditions inhibiting the return of the Pueblo crew are indicators of hostility. If the U.S. resumes bombing of North Vietnam, the North Koreans could undertake another series of hostile acts, particularly against U.S. activity near their border.
“d. While the NKAP has not yet attempted an intercept against these COMMANDO ROYAL tracks, North Korea still has the political initiative and the military capability to selectively react at any time. A diminution of escort that suggests relaxation of vigilance could provide the opportunity for further aggressive acts by North Korea.”,
As a result, of the appraisals of the risk involved to COMMANDO ROYAL, Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) committed considerable resources to provide fighter protection for these missions. The procedures for supporting these missions with fighters and their tanker support were formalized in 5AF ADVON OPORO 501-68. Initially, escort was provided for the entire track, but as tension lessened this was reduced so that in addition to strip alert, “during daylight hours all missions must be covered by fighter escort or fighter CAP while over water on the Eastern leg.” (6) At the time of the BEGGAR SHADOW shootdown, COMMANDO ROYAL was being escorted on random occasions during its entire track and, at all other times, the five-minute air defense ground alert unit was prepared to launch two aircraft to provide airborne escort, if the COMMANDO ROYAL RC-130 were to go over water on the Eastern leg. (7)
The Joint Chiefs of Staff and Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command, had canceled ·the requirement for escort on 9 February 1969. PACAF unilaterally continued escort requirements on certain COMMANDO ROYAL missions which flew over water north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). This was· the area determined to be the most sensitive. Other COMMAND ROYAL missions, as well as the BEGGAR SHADOW, we’re being flown in the Sea of Japan without escort. (8)
1. Msg, NMCC, 260323Z Apr 69.
2. Interview, Lt Col R. S. Heyser, Chie~ Special Reconnaissance Div, Directorate of Reconnaissance, DCS/Operations, PACAF, 24 Apr 69.
3. Msg, CINCPAC, subj: “COMMANDO ROYAL, 260346Z Jan 68.
4. Ltr, PACAF, DORC, subj~ Report Coordination, 19 Sep 68.
5. Ltr, Col R. E. Gaspard, Deputy Dir of Estimates, DCS/Intel, PACAF, to PACAF, DOPL, 21 Aug 68.
6. Msg, CINCPAC, subj: COMMANDO ROYAL Escort, 032252Z Jul 68.
7. Msg, 5AF ADVON, subj: Last Change to OPORD 501-69 prior to EC-121 Incident, 070231Z Mar 69.
8. Ltr, PACAF, DORC, subj: Report Coordination, 19 Sep 69.
15 April 2023 at 17:10
Remembering this day from the outside seems cold and distant. From NSGA Hakata something possible but not thought of happened. It was a quiet spring day that turned dark. For this R brancher it was one of those days that went sideways. We had lost a piece of our innocence that day. It is a cold moment remembered personally today.
With thanks to Mario for this post
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