By Christine Kim and David Brunnstrom
SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – North Korea has threatened to shoot down U.S. bombers flying near the Korean peninsula, but it would have difficulty matching its words with action given aging air defense systems mostly dating to the Cold War, military experts said.
In intensifying rhetoric between the United States and North Korea during the past week, President Donald Trump said the U.S. would “destroy” the country if it threatened the U.S. or its allies. Pyongyang’s foreign minister Ri Yong Ho responded that Trump had “declared war” and North Korea reserved the right to take countermeasures, including shooting down U.S. bombers, even if they were not in its air space.
In a show of force on Saturday, U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers escorted by fighters flew east of North Korea, in what the Pentagon said was the farthest north of the Korean Demilitarized Zone that any U.S. fighter jet or bomber has flown in the 21st century.
The supersonic B-1B bombers have elaborate electronic countermeasures and are usually escorted by four F-15 fighters, which are likely to prevail in any air combat with North Korea’s aging air force, said Bruce Bennett, a military expert at the Rand Corporation think tank.
“(And) if the North Koreans try to overwhelm the F-15 escorts by sending up dozens of their fighters, the United States will know that is happening, and would have the option of flying away from North Korea and heading towards Japan,” Bennett said.
North Korea could attempt to fire surface-to-air missiles at the U.S. aircraft, but its systems would barely have the range to strike targets outside of North Korean airspace, missile experts said.
“If U.S. planes remain off-shore, they would be reasonably safe,” said Michael Elleman, a missile expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
UNAWARE OF U.S. PATROL?
Much less shoot them down, it is not even clear whether North Korea would be able to detect some modern-day U.S. aircraft.
In 1969, North Korea MiG-21 aircraft did shoot down a U.S. Navy EC-121 aircraft on a reconnaissance mission, which crashed 90 miles off the North Korean coast and killed all 31 Americans on board.
But that aircraft was of an aged design based on the Constellation airliner dating back to the 1940s.
The latest U.S. fighter jets have stealth capability designed to avoid detection and North Korea’s military is known to be incapable of operating radar systems around the clock because supplies of energy…