- The Washington Times - Monday, March 3, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 3 (UPI) — Four North Korean armed fighter jets intercepted and shadowed a U.S. surveillance aircraft Saturday for 20 minutes, and one of the jets armed its acquisition radar and flew within 50 feet of the plane, Pentagon spokesman Cdr. Jeff Davis said Monday.

The Pentagon back-pedaled on an earlier version of the incident — that one of the fighters had "painted" or targeted the aircraft with its fire control radar, the final step before firing an air-to-air missile. Davis said that remains a possibility but the flight data is still being analyzed. The acquisition radar — used to find a possible target — was definitely engaged.

Two MiG-29s and two other aircraft — probably MiG-23s — flew out to intercept the U.S. RC-135S "Cobra Ball" when it was 150 miles off the coast of North Korea, well in international airspace. The incident occurred at around 10:40 a.m. Japan time on March 2, or the night of March 1 in the United States.

It is one of the most hostile aircraft incidents between the United States and North Korea in about 30 years, Davis suggested. In April 1969, North Korea shot down a U.S. Navy surveillance plane over the Sea of Japan, killing all 31 on board.

In April 2001, a Chinese fighter collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3, crashing the jet and forcing the surveillance plane to land.

The Cobra Ball returned safely to Kadena Air Base in Japan, Davis said.

The Cobra Ball carries an infrared telescope that can track ballistic missiles at long range, as well as onboard signals and measurement intelligence sensors. It was designed to monitor Soviet missile launches from a flight path along the Kamchatka peninsula.

It has a distinctive black wing that absorbs the sun's rays — like the smears under the eyes of football players — and keeps the light from dazzling its sensors.

The Cobra Ball has received extensive upgrades since the end of the Cold War and has been outfitted with technology and sensors that allow it to track shorter-range theater missiles as well as strategic missiles.

There are only three Cobra Balls in the Air Force inventory. It is a variant of the RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft.

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