U.S. Intelligence on KAL 007's Intrusion into Soviet Territory and the Shoot down

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U.S. intelligence on KAL 007's intrusion into Soviet territory and the shoot down

One of the great unknowns has always been the question of U.S. responsibility in KAL 007's deviation from course causing it to enter Soviet airspace over Kamchatka and the Sakhalin Island. This question was extremely pertinent in the light of the admitted fact that there was indeed a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft in the vicinity as KAL 007 made its intrusion into Soviet airspace over Kamchatka. What it was doing was positioning to intercept the telemetry from the Soviet test launching of the first of all mobile Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), the illegal (according to the SALT agreements) SS-25 which was to hit the Kliyuchi target range on Kamchatka. Could not the RC-135 have seen the jumbo jet and warned it of its danger, as well as informing its own command and civilian air traffic controllers? Could not it have intercepted the ground chatter from the Soviet posts along Kamchatka as Soviet MiGs were scrambled to intercept KAL 007 as it passed from the Soviet Flight Information Region (FIR) into the Soviet Defense Zone - forbidden to non-Soviet aircraft? Could not it have seen the Soviet radars along the coast lighting up as they successively captured the passenger aircraft as it dangerously made its way across Petropavlovsk on the coast bristling with its weaponry - its Pacific nuclear ICB submarine fleet, and its airfields?

These questions have never had an answer for one reason only: The U.S. courts had decided that the obtaining of this information would have compromised U.S. national security interests. The capabilities of U.S. intelligence, and in particular the capabilities of the RC-135, could not be revealed in the height of the Cold War. And so, that track was abandoned by the committee of the lawyers, and the U.S. itself as plaintiff was dropped in the ensuing litigation in both the liability cases and the cases for damages. But what if there was a way to learn what had happened that did not involve revealing the capabilities of the RC-135? What if what had happened was related by people who knew rather than by a revealing of classified technical capabilities?

That is exactly what has come to the fore now.

The Terminology:

Cobra Dane - U.S. Radar station on Shemya Island, line of sight radar with the capability of tracking an airplane at 30 thousand feet altitude through an area covering 400 miles (the curvature of the earth being its limiting factor)

Cobra Talon, an over the horizon (OTH) “backscatter” radar array with a range from 575 miles (925 km) to 2,070 miles (3,330 km). Cobra Talon operated by bouncing its emissions off the ionosphere (deflection) to the other side of the line of sight horizon, thus acquiring its targets.

Cobra Ball- U.S. RC-135 reconnaissance plane flying "race track" flight path of the coast of Kamchatka, tasked primarily for telemetry capture of incoming Soviet missiles (Klyuchi target range on Kamchatka Peninsula)

Cobra Judy - U.S. radar station on the Intelligence ship Observation Island (OBIS) stationed off the coast of Kamchatka near where KAL 007 intruded

DEFSMAC - The Defense Special Missile and Astronautics Center

An RC-135 airman who flew back to Anchorage, Alaska, from Shemya Island with the RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft crew after they had returned to Shemya base from their surveillance at Kamchatka's borders tells what was told to him by the crew. The answer to the question is in the affirmative. They were aware of KAL 007, and they did know that it was entering harm's way and nothing was done about it. No reporting of the disaster about to take place. When they had returned to their base on Shemya, KAL 007 had already departed Kamchatka's airspace but had not yet entered Sakhalin's airspace where the attack would occur. There was still time enough! Here are the words of this airman. His words are in the form of letters to this Committee for the Rescue of KAL 007 Survivors. If they seem redundant, it is because he is clarifying statements at my request. We start with his unsolicited letter to the Committee (There are deletions made to ensure non-disclosure of identity. The possible need for this will be apparent. Perhaps, at a later stage, with the airman's permission, more information will be forthcoming.) -

"Tonight I watched the History Channel special about KAL 007. One part that could not help but stick in my gut was the statement that the RC 135 may not have been aware of 007 because as the former Cobra Ball pilot said they were using downward looking radar. That may have been true, but that night I was waiting on the ground for that RC to land so I and the crew that was onboard the aircraft mentioned on the special could fly back to Eielson AFB. I was friends at the time with a number of the aircrew members in the back of the aircraft who when questioned as to why they were so late and pale as sheets answered, "Watch CNN when you get back". These guys were specifically Russian linguists and analysts, so it was apparent they had knowledge of what had happened. Until I heard the statement on TV tonight, I never knew that there was any disavowment of knowledge about the incident. Since I had such a high security clearance at the time, I have never mentioned this to anyone and even today worry about sending you this, but I hope that this little bit of truth may help."

My request for clarifications -

1. Would it have been possible, or likely, that these people had tracked (radar, other means?) KAL 007 while the flight crew itself of the RC-135 not have been aware of 007's intrusion? This seems hardly likely to me but I wanted to get your take on this.

2. Did the linguists and analysts say anything about where 007 was when it was observed? Was it heading for Russian airspace? Was it ALREADY in Russian air space?

3. Was it on Shemya that you boarded the plane with the RC-135 crew for your flight back to Eielson AFB?

4. Is there any way that we can get in touch with any of these people? Do you recall their names? Have you kept in contact with any of them or know of their whereabouts?

The airman's response to my request -

1. The RC-135 platform listens to every comm coming out of an area. But it's all of the guys sitting in the back. The actual flight crew may not have known anything.

2. These guys only said, "Watch CNN when you get home". They have to be very tight-lipped about what goes on, but understood that we knew what their capability was in the air, so simply saying that shouted to me that they knew what happened.

3. Yes, I rode a training RC down to Shemya with the weekly replacement crew to complete some business. I had to wait quite a time for the crew on the mission to return, but when they did, they were as white as ghosts from what they had heard. I re-boarded the training RC with them to return to our home base of Eielson.

4. I'm sorry, but as so often happens, there are too many miles under the bridge and I don't remember any of the linguists. As is typical in the military, you work so close and depend on each other so much only to lose touch during all of the assignments and years...."

The following is information that has come into the "Committee for the Rescue" in response to the previous posting concerning KAL 007's intrusion into Soviet airspace being known to the crew of the RC-135 then off the coast of Kamchatka on its mission to capture telemetry from the Soviet secret test launching of the first of all mobile Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, the illegal SS-25 which was to come down on Kamchatka's Klyuchi target range

This information has been conveyed to us (for the first time) by men who had been intimately involved operationally with the reconnaissance operations from Shemya Island or who had been in touch with these men. As in the first article concerning the RC-135 mission, for the present, the identity of the informants needs to be concealed. As the investigation progresses, and with permission, that may change.

RC-135 surveillance aircraft

The background: Having passed the sleepy fishing village of Bethel on Alaska's west coast, and deviated (according to military radar at King Salmon, Alaska) 12.6 nautical miles north of "Romeo 20", its assigned route, KAL 007 soon reached its first oceanic "reporting waypoint" - NABIE. Then, halfway between waypoint NABIE and the next required reporting waypoint, NEEVA, KAL 007 passed through the southern portion of the United States Air Force NORAD (North American Air Defense) buffer zone. This zone, monitored intensively by U. S. Intelligence assets, lies north of Romeo 20 and was off-limits to civilian aircraft. It was either here, or, perhaps, already in the Soviet Buffer Zone, which KAL 007, according to State Department release, had intruded at 1551GMT, that the straying passenger plane was known by the RC-135 crew to be entering into Soviet space. It is not known that the RC-135 crew had a visual sighting of KAL 007, nor if they, indeed, had radio contact with the jumbo jet, but by the testimony in the previous posting concerning the intrusion, the Russian language linguists and translators, as well as the Electronic Warfare Officers, the "Ravens", sitting to the rear of the RC-135, became aware through the intercepted Soviet Air Defense ground chatter, and by the Soviet radar on Kamchatka lighting up, that the passenger plane was intruding Soviet controlled airspace. From the information conveyed to us, it was clear that there was a way available to the reconnaissance crew to warn KAL 007 away without endangering their primary mission - the capture of SS-25's telemetry. This was by transmitting a secure channel "Critic Report".


"If the RC-135 had become aware of an attempt to shoot down an airliner [and I would add - enter harm's way by intruding Soviet air space. B.S.], it would have immediately sent out a Critic report via a secure HF link to the closest ground station, in this case Elmendorf; that would have been immediately relayed to NSA and the appropriate authorities would have been notified. A Critic is the highest intelligence report that intelligence agencies can issue. It is sent at Flash precedence, which literally overrides anything else on the net. A ground station cannot override a Critic. One of its criteria is that it has to come to the attention of the highest command authorities within ten minutes, preferably less. The president would have known about it almost immediately after NSA got the report. The aircraft commander would also have been notified of this. The RC-135 would have been diverted, within fuel limits, to get closer to the action. He could have sent out a Mayday on the emergency frequencies, 121.5 MHz and 243.00 MHz. If the RC-135 had been aware of it, ground stations all around the world would also have been aware of it, as well at the National Sigint Operations Center at NSA. The airliner would have been notified."

It is not known if, indeed, a Critic Report was transmitted by the RC-135. If a report had been transmitted by the RC-135, a decision was taken somewhere further up, not to warn KAL 007. This is apparent from KAL007's Cockpit Voice Recorder tape transcripts, handed over by the Russian Federation, which clearly show that the flight crew of KAL 007, throughout the entire flight until the Soviet Su-15's attack at 18:26 GMT had remained oblivious to the danger into which they had entered.

But what possible reason could there be for KAL 007 not to be warned? This is supplied by another informant.


"... I began working at Anchorage International Airport. I started with the American company that ground handled all the Korean Air Lines flights through here. For several years I worked side by side with the KAL dispatchers and station personnel who were directly involved with KAL 007. One of my coworkers, had prepared the flight documents, and given them to the doomed crew. Although I had started shortly after the downing of the Korean aircraft, the memory of the whole affair was still fresh in everyone’s mind. I met, and became close friends with a young gentleman who was fresh out of the air force, and was now working in the civilian aviation industry. [Name deleted]... had close ties with friends who were still airmen at Elmendorf Air Force Base. The first time we spoke of the KAL flight, the normally jovial ... became very serious, and told me a story. As was habit at the time, ... met with one of his air force buddies after work for drinks. The airman worked at one of the base operations, dealing with the most sensitive and classified communications. He was visibly shaken when ... met with him. He worked with secret information, but alcohol tends to loosen lips. This was within hours of the (supposed) destruction of KAL 007. The airman’s words were, "I can’t believe we did that!" He went on to tell my friend a story of how the civilian 747 had accidentally strayed off course, and how the U.S. had decided to use it to an intelligence advantage. The RC-135 was in a pattern near the USSR, and when the planes were in position, The RC deliberately mimicked the 747 in order to ‘tickle’ the Russian radar, as was the normal routine of the RC. No attempt was made to contact the 747 and let it know it was off course. As the RC traveled away, the civilian jet traveled toward Russia. According to the airman, no one expected that the Soviets would actually shoot it down..."

Here is an account that indicates "tickling" of the enemy's defenses occurred using by pretending to be airliners on airliner routes. This testimony does not say that this was done by traveling alongside airliners, but is in accord with the testimony above that indicates that that is the way it was done.

"Guys. I was afloat in the air wing in a front line, actively deployed F-4 Phantom II fighter squadron in Reagan's Canoe Club USS Coral Sea (CV-43) when that incident happened and can tell you it had...everything to do with a tragic sequence of events that began with a longstanding practice of our Air Force's spy planes "ghosting" the passenger flight routes in the region, pretending to be airliners just like KAL007 straying off course so we could get a closer look and use the expected reluctance of the Soviets to not shoot down a passenger plane for fear of retribuition internationally- and knowing if they did, and they did, we could use that to greater advantage in the PR battle of the cold war. My personal experience is limited to knowing our job in policing the North Pacific (when we weren't on West-Pac cruises) was intercepting nuclear armed Tupolev Tu-95 Bear Bomber Aircraft in scary wingtip to wingtip encounters, hoping neither side blinked- and hoping even more if one did we could get the Russians to make a really stupid mistake. The reason we were ghosting the passenger flight routes is because many were drifting nearly where we wanted to see, our spy planes came before and after their schedules times and went further, clearly over Soviet territory. KAL 007 was not an anamoly shot down because of its own actions, but for the repeated incursions of the Air Force- and was a mistake we knew could happen and weren't overly concerned that it would."

Another -

"Mr. Schlossberg, I have visited Wakkanai, Rebun and Rishiri in northern Hokkaido and I believe it is possible to see, on a clear day, Moneron or its immediate vicinity, from both Wakkanai and Rebun. But just barely because of the distance involved and the curvature of the earth. It is certainly possible to see Sakhalin from Wakkanai and Rebun (I did). Also, a fairly robust-looking radar station is resting on top of a hill overlooking Wakkanai city. They appear to be telemetry trackers, but I'm not certain. The view to the north from there should be excellent, but I myself did not get up that high on my trip. Ironically, now that I think about it, my trip occurred 30-31 AUG. I did note that the weather was clear with very little wind and the waters around our ferry boat were flat as glass."

Dear ______, Yes, it is ironic that your visit took place on 30-31 of August!. Thank you for the information. This is something we had been wondering about. From what you say, then, probably KAL 007 coming down to the water would not have been seen by the naked eye even if there were favorable light conditions but could have been tracked by line-of-sight radar, if employed, from the top of the hill overlooking Wakkanai. As a fact, there was a Japanese radar tracking but that stopped prior to completion 0f 007's full descent. Thanks for the information! Bert Schlossberg

note to myself: " I did note that the weather was clear with very little wind and the waters around our ferry boat were flat as glass." unlike commonly held, weather, wind, and water conditions favorable for a water landing

"Mr. Schlossberg, I agree. The only probable eye-witnesses would have been Japanese fishermen in the area. I'm told Russians seldom fish there, even now. The location of the radar station was such that, had a radar operator got up from his console, walked outside with a binoculars, looked to the north, he would have had a good chance of seeing the navigation lights of the aircraft circling over Moneron. Good luck to you, sir."

This from a US intelligence serviceman on the real time monitoring of the shootdown -

"I spent 12 years in the US Army. I was a intelligence intercept operator. I was on active duty when this event occured. One of the most chilling times in my life happened that day. I was on duty doing the normal things we all did. Then on one of the systems that monitors wordly affairs some information started coming in. It was this incident. Myself and others went to this system to monitor what was going on. It was a tele-type system. It was the actual intercepted comms of this situation. It was being translated real time into english. We were plotting where it was happening and receiving the Russian pilots every word about the final intercept and eventual outcome. I was only 20yrs old and thought this is gonna cause WW3. Just prior to the shot down the Russians knew it was a Commercial aircraft. So saying they didnt know and willing killed innocent people is something that is debatable. The fact is that other a/c had been in the area and this IMHO was the undoing of this whole situation. Hearing the pilot say he was at a certain altitude below the target for max kill, then seeing over the tele-type "I have lock, missle off". Then seconds later, "Target Destroyed". Its a feeling and situation I never wanted to feel again... I cringe everyday thinking about my three daughters and the kids they will bear in the future. Look at the world now, see it in 10-15yrs. I sure hope it changes and fast."

This is from a communicaiton specialist about the intelligence ship Observation Island:

"I Was talking to my son the other day about my military service. We were watching a program on TV that had a plane flying near the Russian 12 mile limit and it brought back memories. I was bored at work today and googled KAL 007 and your web site popped up. Glanced at your rescue 007 web site. I am guessing this is still classified, hard to believe it is almost 30 years later. In any case would like to try to help you out about what happened that day. I was 291X0 (US Air Force Communication Specialist) stationed on board the USNS Observation Island. The Observation Island worked in conjunction with Shemya Corbra Dane and the Cobra Ball to monitor Soviet missile tests (you already know all this I am sure). We were on station anticipating a Soviet test launch of one of there ICBM's. I was on duty when we received a teletype message from HQ NSA (we had a satellite teletype link with NSA before email and all that haha, we could send formal messages or informal messages, like todays chat) the message read "We think they shot down the ball". I remember thinking "No Way!, I just talked to the guys on the Ball ( we had a secure voice link to them, what a piece of junk that was, old crypto gear everything has to be repeated 5 or 6 times). Any I type back to DEFSMAC at NSA "I just talked to the Ball about 10 minutes ago, they were fine". So the guy at NSA told me to contact them again. I called the ball again and said "Cobra Ball this is Cobra Judy are you guys ok?" they answered "They were fine, why?" I said "NSA asked me to check on you, they thought you were shot down", the guy on the Ball said "No we are fine", at that point I said ok "Ok I will report back to NSA". I typed back to NSA that the Ball was fine. They said ok and left it at that, end of communications. We had a one-man secure communications center so I could not discuss it with someone, nobody was there with me. Later on we all found out the jet liner was shot down. It is my opinion the Cobra Ball was not tracking KAL007 and did not know what happened since at least the communications person I was talking with seemed surprised when I asked him if they were ok. If they had been tracking the 007 they would have known when it was shot down and I am pretty sure he would have made mention of it in our communication.

"Funny followup story. A day or so later ( I forget exactly) we were of course still on our race track waiting for a ICBM launch we would spend weeks on end going around in a circle. The OBIS lost power, salt water in the electrical lines. We started to drift to the Soviet limit, Kamchatka started to get bigger and bigger through the port holes. Of course everyone was bit uptight since 007 was shot down a day or so before. They told me to report to the comm center and start to get ready to throw classified material overboard and destroy all the crypto gear. The Soviets sent out a tug boat and a gun boat, they wanted to know if we wanted help. The Master of the ship ( I forget his name) told them no. Luckily they got the engines started before we crossed the limit, I am sure the Soviets would have boarded us and towed us in if we did. I remember the USAF Major in charge being very nervous, Major Mees I think, smoking cigarettes like crazy. We had Russian linguists on board they were very nervous too I guess for good reason we could all be tried as spies. Civilians on board too and Miltary Sealift Command personal too ( it was MSC ship). All in all for a 22 year old pretty exciting stuff. It was so funny everyone running around trying to put there uniforms on, guess we figured that if the Soviets boarded we were less likely to be shot with a uniform on, haha. Well hope this helps and you find it interesting, if you need to ask some questions shoot me an email."

My response to the above

Dear _____, I do have some comments and would appreciate it if you could respond or clear up any matter from your perspective. From your comments about the incident a day or two after the shoot down about the Observation Island drifting close to the limit, it seems that you were fairly near to the location where KAL 007 crossed into Kamchatka. That was somewhat north of Petropavlosk. Were you at that location about 2 1/2 hours or more prior to the call you got from DEFSMAC to contact the Ball and see how they were? I ask this because, the Cobra Ball that you had contacted would not have been the Ball of the "Korean Air Lines 007 intrusion" but rather the Recon Ball that took up its position on the racetrack after the flight in question had started back to Shemya. I think that that is why the guys on the Ball couldn't have known anything.

DEFSMAC contacted you saying to check about the Ball if it was O.K. But that had to be after 18:26:02 GMT when the Soviet interceptor launched its missiles, This was after about a 2 1/2 hours flight across Kamchatka, then across the Sea of Okhutsk, and then after shortly crossing over Sakhalin. KAL 007 had previously crossed over into Kamchatka, according to U.S. intercepts of Soviet installations at 15:53 GMT. So if you were on station, at around that earlier time, it would have been possible for you to know of the intrusion. But the Cobra Ball crew that you had contacted about 2 1/2 hours after the shoot down, could not have been aware of anything wrong.*

What your info shows clearly is that the National Security Agency:

  1. had received the info of a shoot down very soon after it happened, so soon that it knew nothing of a missing KAL 007. If it did know of a missing KAL 007, it would have surmised that the plane shot down was the missing airliner and not a Cobra Ball (NSA might have actually received the mistaken info that the aircraft shot was a RC-135 Ball or surmised it).
  2. did not know of the actual location of the shoot down, which was near Moneron Island, which was hundreds of miles and 2 1/2 hours from the Observation Island, and therefore contacted you (possibly others) to find out if the Ball was O.K.

P.S. What does "OBIS" stand for?

  • There have been two reports that have come in that indicate that the actual crew of the Ball that had been up at the time of KAL 007's intrusion were aware of the intrusion [These reports are provided in Part II]. But it was only the "Ravens" and possibly the linguists which were aware and not the Ball's flight crew itself
    • NSA could well have known that the aircraft that was shot down was the missing KAL 007 but that would have been only after about 1/2 hour after the attack, when Tokyo Air Control broadened its search by enlisting other units, and after DEFSMAC contacted you. Prior to this, Tokyo Air control attempted to make contact with KAL 007 itself or by having one other passenger plane which close to KAL 007's supposed location try to make contact.

"At 18:56 hours, thirty minutes after KE 007's estimated time over NOKKA and after repeated attempts to re-establish communication had failed, Tokyo ACC [Air Control Center] notified several ATS [Air Traffic Service] units and military units via direct-speech links, of its inability to establish radio contact with KE 007, and requested them to conduct a communication search." (ICAO '93, sect. 1.11.1, pg. 16)

His response

"Mr. Schlossberg To answer your question, our racetrack was not very large so we had to be in the same general area when the teletype message came from DEFSMAC asking about the Cobra Ball. What I find interesting is that you are saying there was 2 Cobra Balls. Are you saying they were using 2 RC-135's? Flying one Ball for period of time then launching another Ball to take it's place, or was the other Ball used for another purpose? Only reason I ask is that when there was a ICBM launch window they would deploy a Ball. NSA DEFSMAC would ask us occasionally to communicate with the Ball. Bert, your comments in blue make sense. How NSA knew something was shot down, I don't know how they knew, that puzzled me back then and it still puzzles me today but your right they had no clue it was the KAL007. Here is my thought on how DEFSMAC knew something was wrong: I know DEFSMAC used satellite feeds (measuring heat and other things) and other elint to detect surface to air missiles (SA's) & surface to surface (SS), but do not recall if they could detect air to air missles, or even looked for them. I suppose since we were anticipating an ICBM launch they (DEFSMAC) would have had their resources trained on launch site and the impact site (Kamchatka) and somehow did detect the air to air missle fired by the Soviet Mig. The analyst's at DEFSMAC at the time would have put 2 and 2 together quickly and surmised the air to air missle was meant for the Ball. I knew some of the guys who worked in DEFSMAC (when I was not deployed on the Observation Island thats where I worked as a communications specialist, DEFSMAC) maybe they just shot from the hip because they were concerned about the safety of the crew on the Ball. Of course they were wrong it was not the Ball but KAL007.

Finally OBIS = USNS Observation Island."

My comments: There are reports that indeed, the return of a Cobra Ball to its base on Shemya was effected at the same time that a replacement Cobra Ball had taken its position on the "racetrack" off Kamchatka, the point of entry of KAL 007 to Soviet territory. This provided full continuous coverage of missile telemetry. It is reasonable that the crew of the RC-135 Cobra Ball contacted by Cobra Judy on Observation Island intelligence ship would not have known of anything amiss as it was contacted shortly after KAL 007 was shot down hundreds of miles away over Sakhalin Island and 2 1/2 hours after it had made its intrusion into Soviet Territory. The Cobra Ball that was in position to know something was the Cobra Ball that had been replaced and that was sitting on the runway at Shemya, having returned from its mission.

I fully realize that the above testimony is not proof and that the thrust of an "intelligence bonus" has been conjectured before. But this is the first time that there have been people coming forth to say, in one case, by an airman that had flown with the actual crew on their return to home base who had come back late and as white as ghosts saying, "Watch CNN when you get back," in another case, by an airman from those same Shemya RC-135 reconnaissance missions, that disaster could have been averted simply by the use of the Critic Report, and in yet another case, albeit twice removed, resting on testimony within hours of the incident and involving classified operational information indicating the "window of opportunity" intelligence gathering motive.

But here I would emphasize, "no one expected that the Soviets would actually shoot it down...."

Who will, then, take up with us the important work of verifying these important leads, and seeking for more? Who will investigate thoroughly what Governments have failed to do till this day? Who will pen those articles and write that book so that all of us can learn and act?

Bert Schlossberg

Director, International Committee for the Rescue of KAL 007 Survivors, www.rescue007.org

See also

KAL 007: Soviet stalk, shoot down, and rescue mission orders transcripts