Date
August 08, 2017

Executive Summary

Reports that a North Korean ballistic missile passed near a commercial airliner during a missile test on July 28 have raised concerns that Pyongyang's ballistic missile testing could pose a threat to civil aviation in the region. While North Korea's failure to announce its missile tests in advance is worrisome, the ballistic missile tests themselves pose only a minimal threat to commercial airliners. Other aspects of North Korea's behavior, such as surface-to-air missile tests, could pose a slight threat to commercial airliners flying near the Korean Peninsula. The greatest threat to commercial aircraft would be during a major North Korean offensive on Seoul, as airlines struggle to redirect flights out of the area. However, despite elevated tensions, there is no indication that major hostilities are imminent in the near term.

Key Judgments

  • Media reports that a North Korean ballistic missile test nearly hit a commercial airliner last month are overstated.
  • Ballistic missiles pose a minimal threat to commercial airliners in flight.
  • Airlines will likely adjust flight routings to avoid areas where missile tests are most likely to occur; these re-routings may lengthen flight times but will not cause serious disruptions.
  • North Korea's tests of surface-to-air missiles present a slightly greater threat to commercial airliners than its ballistic missile tests, though the risk is still low.
  • The greatest threat to commercial airliners in the region would be if major hostilities were to occur, which is unlikely at this time.

Recent Concerns

Media reports of a "near-miss" between a North Korean ballistic missile and an airliner are overstated. On July 28, North Korea test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan. As with other recent missile tests, the North Korean government did not issue any sort of warning before the test, or give any indication of where the missile might land. Later analysis showed that an Air France (AF) Boeing 777 operating flight AF-293 from Tokyo's Haneda Airport (HND) to Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) had passed within 113 km (70 miles) of the missile's landing site less than 10 minutes before the missile returned to ground. The flight continued to Paris without incident.

The July 28 incident was not the first instance in which an airliner passed near the flight path of a North Korean missile during a missile test, though such incidents are extremely rare. In March 2014, a China Southern Airlines Airbus A330 operating flight CZ-628 from Tokyo's Narita Airport (NRT) to Shenyang, China (SHE) flew near a North Korean missile's flight path within seven minutes of the missile being fired. As on July 28, the flight continued to its destination without incident.

Classifying either incident as a "near-miss" is an exaggeration in aeronautical terms. Even with conservative estimates of airspeed and timing, both the Air France and China Southern aircraft were at least 80 km (50 miles) from the North Korean missiles' flight paths, representing acceptable separation distance, despite operating concerns. While North Korea's failure to provide warnings prior to its ballistic missile tests represents irresponsible behavior, the passengers on both flights are not considered to have been in serious danger.

Ballistic Missiles and Airliners

Ballistic missiles are designed primarily to hit targets on the ground, and have very different designs than surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), which are designed to hit aircraft. While there have been several instances globally of SAMs accidentally targeting and destroying airliners, including the destruction of Malaysia Airlines (MH) flight MH-17 over eastern Ukraine in July 2014, there have been no recorded cases of ballistic missiles hitting aircraft in flight.

Ballistic missiles are not equipped with systems capable of sensing, tracking, and guiding the missile to an aircraft in flight, thus posing minimal risk to commercial aircraft. Ballistic missiles are also generally not equipped with live warheads during test firings, and even if the missiles were equipped with warheads, they are not designed to detonate in flight. The most likely way in which a ballistic missile could impact a flight is if it happened to intersect the airliner's precise flight path at the exact second the airliner was flying past. The likelihood of such a midair collision is remote, and would be unprecedented in aviation history.

Most carriers avoid flying over North Korea itself. The unpredictable nature of North Korea's current actions, however, limit airlines' options for taking further precautionary measures, creating some degree of risk. Air France initially stated that it had no plans to alter flight paths following the July 28 incident, but on August 3 the airline announced that it would avoid routing future flights through the area where the July 28 incident occurred. Other airlines are likely to take similar measures. The new flight routings will likely add up to 30 minutes to flight times, but are unlikely to cause major disruptions to air travel.

The Threat from SAMs or a Larger Conflict

Although North Korea's ballistic missile tests are thought to pose a minimal threat to commercial airliners, aggressive weapons tests still prompt minor concerns. North Korea has engaged in several SAM tests along its eastern coast, and has indicated plans to intensify SAM production in the coming months. SAM tests pose a slightly higher  threat to airliners than ballistic missile tests; Ukraine's accidental downing of a passing Russian airliner during a SAM test in October 2001 illustrates this threat. While most airliners stay well out of SAM range of Sondok Airbase in South Hamgyong Province, North Korea, where a recent SAM test reportedly took place, occasional instances of airliners flying close to this area have been observed. Flight tracking websites have noted S7 Airlines (S7) flights between Shanghai, China (PVG) and Vladivostok, Russia (VVO) routinely fly very close to Sondok Airbase, representing possible risk during periods of missile testing. Additionally, North Korean attempts to test SAMs near the border with South Korea would pose an increased threat to aircraft flying near Seoul, as all airliners flying to or from the city could be within range of SAMs fired near the border. Should such a test ever occur, airlines would almost certainly adjust flight plans to reduce the threat, though the close proximity of Seoul to the North Korean border suggests that the risk cannot be entirely avoided.

Direct military conflict would create an increased risk to airlines operating in the area through conventional means, accidental targeting, and errant missile flightpaths, but there is no current indication that this is a risk at the present time. While airlines would immediately try to remove all in-flight aircraft from the combat zone, the airspace around Seoul is among the busiest in the world, and the likelihood of an accidental downing of a commercial airliner in the first hour of a conflict would be high.

Conclusion

  • North Korean missile tests represent an unlikely risk to commercial airlines in the immediate future.
  • Commercial airlines are likely to assess the risk posed by missile testing in the Korean Peninsula and will take mitigative action to avoid incident.
  • There is currently no indication that increasing tensions in the region will present significant risk to traversing aircraft.
  • Route disruptions created by an abundance of caution in the airspace impacted by testing should not significantly disrupt travel or trade.
  • Even with increased tensions or hostile actions in the area, airlines would alter routes in advance to avoid potential incidents.