U.S. ‘Sniffer’ Jets Seek to Detect North Korea Nuclear Detonations

There have been recent claims that North Korea successfully conducted a hydrogen bomb test. Plainly, if North Korea has this capability, there would be cause for concern. But, according to CNN, the White House is skeptical, and the Air Force may send a “sniffer” jet in the region of the Korean Peninsula to help ascertain whether North Korea’s claims are accurate.

CNN has been informed by a U.S. official that any type of nuclear detonation would cause certain distinctive elements to be present in the air, and collected air samples could find out what if anything occurred.

The aircraft tasked would be a WC-135W jet, referred to as the “Constant Phoenix.” The Air Force has two of these jets that operate from Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, according to CNN. (In addition, the US reportedly has ground stations that can help refute or verify the claimed detonation).

The Constant Phoenix jet reportedly contains external devices with filter paper that collect radioactive particulates from the atmosphere. According to CNN, the Constant Phoenix program began long ago in 1947 with General Dwight D. Eisenhower; the Army Air Forces (the forerunner of the Air Force) started using certain bombers to try to detect nuclear tests by the Soviet Union.

Constant Phoenix jets not only have been tasked to monitor compliance or not with nuclear weapons treaties, but they also reportedly have had broader application, like monitoring the consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion in 1986 in the Soviet Union.

The Constant Phoenix “sniffer” jets serve a valuable purpose. Let’s just hope in this instance that if such a jet is employed, that it determines that North Korea in fact has not successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb test. The latest reports indicate that we won’t know for certain at least for a few days.

Eric Sinrod (@EricSinrod on Twitter) is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP, where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod’s columns, please email him at ejsinrod@duanemorris.com with Subscribe in the Subject line. This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s law firm or its individual partners.