North Korea launched a missile early Tuesday morning local time that apparently spooked NORAD, which caused more of a stir than government sources are willing to admit. The missile itself appears to have had a different signature than earlier test launches, probably caused by the fact that it appeared to have hit Mach 10, causing the missile to reach a high enough altitude that the hypersonic glide vehicle could have reached the west coast.
As a result, the FAA issued a pair of ground stops for aircraft on the west coast that lasted a total of 17 minutes. NORAD initially denied issuing an alert message before later admitting to it. (Actual ATC ground stop slips pictured)
Now let me tell you that I am part of a hobbyist group that monitors the US radio network that is used to issue messages to nuclear capable units, among other things. Called an EAM (Emergency Action Message) they are encoded, but you still get a sense that something is happening when radio traffic increases. The messages sound like this:
So last night, I was repeatedly awakened as no fewer than 22 EAMs between 2100 and midnight. I wondered what was going on, then discovered the textgroup had been alive with aircraft reports.
Some of the members of the group are HAM radio enthusiasts like myself, others are air traffic controllers, some just radio nerds. Here is what was reported to me:
Two B-1B bombers were scrambled out of Joint base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska, callsigns Javelin 71 and 72. They were accompanied by 4 KC-135 tankers, callsigns Pearl 71, 72, 73, and 74. They were diverted and landed at Misawa AFB in Japan. I don’t think that these were armed with nuclear weapons, both because the B-1B has reportedly had its nuclear capabilities removed, and I doubt Japan wants nuclear weapons stored on its soil.
Note: Reader Wolfgang Gullich posted a comment (see below) that there were never any B-1’s at Elmendorf on the day in question. Don’t know what this means, since the callsigns and flight paths have been verified by flight tracking software.
At the same time, it seems that some B-52s were scrambled out of Barksdale, a pair of E-6 Mercury TACAMO craft (callsign Shrub 46 and Ruff 07) took off out of Tinker AFB in Oklahoma City and Joint Base Andrews in Morningside, Maryland, while a VC-32A also lifted out of Andrews at nearly the same time, using the callsign SAM-116.
The B-52 is of course a nuclear capable bomber, but there is no way of knowing if any of the aircraft launched had actual nuclear weapons loaded, but that would be the safe bet. I mean, why draw an unloaded firearm from the holster, right?
The E-6 Mercury is a “doomsday” plane that has the capability to both launch the nation’s land based nuclear missiles and order the Navy’s Trident submarines to launch their weapons. It is staffed by a flag officer (either an Air Force general or Navy Admiral) with access to the country’s nuclear codes, so that they can order a nuclear retaliatory strike in the event that other levels of the command structure are destroyed in an attack. They used to be airborne 24/7, until 1990. Since that time, they are kept on ground alert with the capability of being launched on short notice. The Navy (who owns the aircraft) only bought 16 of these aircraft, so it is a big deal to have two of them airborne at any one time, for any length of time.
The VC-32 is used by the Vice President under the callsign Air Force-2, and by cabinet level officers in the chain of succession using the SAM callsigns.
As I write this on Tuesday afternoon, there is still at least one E-6B over the country. One of them (RUFF01) is currently airborne over Nebraska.
Here is what I think happened:
NORAD detected the missile launch and noted that its speed and maximum altitude fit the profile for a possible CONUS impact. This caused NORAD to issue a ground stop for the west coast, as well as flushing some nuclear capable forces off of ground alert and headed towards Korea, while also getting a Presidential successor and the generals in charge of any possible nuclear response into their airborne command posts.