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Historical Perspectives

Addressing Dangers of Airborne Collection
Lessons from Four North Korean Shootdown Attempts during 1959-81

Richard A. Mobley

This article is dedicated to the 31 crewmen of a U.S. Navy EC-121 (PR-21) who were killed while flying a signals intelligence mission on 15 April 1969 when a North Korean MiG-21 shot them down approximately 80 nautical miles (nm) off the North Korean coast.

Over the past decade, newly declassified records and published accounts of aircrew members shed light on four North Korean attempts to shoot down US reconnaissance aircraft. These records provided lessons learned for military and IC personnel orchestrating such operations during the Cold War. Previously released material revealing the broad outlines of each incident along with the more recent evidence reveal the long-term challenges in warning against low-signature, tactical episodes such as shootdown attempts, but the material also shows the ways in which the military and IC tweaked the Cold War programs to reduce the risks to airborne collectors.

Although Soviet, Warsaw Pact, Chinese, and North Korean forces attacked dozens of US intelligence collection aircraft during the Cold War, I will focus on only four incidents involving North Korea between 1959 and 1981 because they were highly publicized, deliberate, and methodical attacks against platforms unquestionably in international airspace, The incidents include attacks against

  • a Navy P4M-1Q Mercator (16 June 1959),
  • an Air Force RB-47 (27 April 1965),
  • an Air Force SR-71 (26 August 1981),
  • and the catastrophic shootdown of the Navy EC-121 with 31 people aboard (15 April 1969) to whom this study is dedicated.

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All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed in this journal are those of the authors. Nothing in any of the articles should be construed as asserting or implying US government endorsement of their factual statements and interpretations. Articles by non-US government employees are copyrighted.


Posted: Jul 10, 2019 04:34 PM
Last Updated: Jul 10, 2019 04:37 PM