THE KOREAN AIR Lines tragedy has exposed major flaws in the operations of both superpowers' intelligence and military operations.
The much-heralded Soviet air defense system performed miserably, failing to intercept the lumbering Boeing 747 before it passed over one of the Soviet Union's most sensitive nuclear weapons bases. Thereafter, "the intruder spy plane" was unescorted for at least half an hour as it flew over the Sea of Okhotsk in the direction of equally sensitive defense facilities on Sakhalin Island.
The vaunted U.S. electronic intelligence collection system did not do too much better. It failed to produce accurate information as the events were occurring. When it did deliver the "smoking gun" tape of the conversation of Soviet pilots, its impact was sharply diminished by a major error of omission. The initial translation of the tape left out a phrase that suggested the Soviet pilot did make an effort at the last minute to fire his cannon as a warning.
Some 500 miles northeast of the sensitive Soviet ballistic missile submarine base of Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula, at 4:51 a.m. local time Sept. 1, the Korean airliner began to move off its authorized course. Although the plane was still in international airspace, Russian air defense radars began to track it.
Further south, also in international airspace off the Kamchatka Peninsula, an RC-135 American reconnaissance plane was turning in familiar figure eights, as it had for the previous two hours. The plane, a modified Boeing 707, kept its electronic interception gear turned on to gather radio transmissions from the Soviet missile range impact area on the peninsula.
Advance word of an impending test had led to the U.S. aircraft's mission, a familiar one to the Soviets who regularly watch such American planes travel along their coast.
At about 5 a.m., the two planes approached each other. According to the American story, they never were closer than 75 miles. Only when the RC-135, having swung out of its loop, turned away from the Soviet coast to head back toward its base at Shemya in the Aleutian Islands at about 5:10 a.m., did the U.S. Air Force plane cross, at a perpendicular angle, the route of the Korean airliner.
The Soviets claim that the two planes traveled together on a parallel course for 10 minutes before the reconnaissance plane broke away.
At 5:30 a.m., Kamchatka time, KAL 007 crossed the Soviet border. That's when the weaknesses in Soviet air defense became readily apparent. At his press conference in Moscow, Soviet chief of staff Gen. Nikolai Ogarkov admitted that Soviet radars were confused by the two aircraft in the area. But that laxness led to a delay in scrambling planes to see what was going on.
According to Ogarkov, it was not until 5:37 a.m. that four Soviet interceptors at bases in Kamchatka went aloft to find the intruder plane. At the time, according to U.S. sources, the Russians thought it was another RC-135 that had strayed.
For the next 31 minutes, according to Ogarkov, the four planes remained in the air while KAL 007 not only traversed the 200-mile-wide peninsula, but flew almost directly over the secret submarine base at Petropavlovsk. U.S. sources say the Soviets never caught up with the airliner before it reached international air space over the Sea of Okhotsk.
Ogarkov and the aviation commander of Soviet air defense forces, Col. Gen. Nikolai Moskvitelev, claim their planes found "the intruder." But, according to Moskvitelev, when signals and radio efforts evoked no response, the interceptors withdrew, having determined "the intruder aircraft had no need of assistance and . . . that everything on board was in working condition."
In short, by the Soviet officer's own words, the flight over Kamchatka, though a clear violation of sensitive Soviet airspace, did not seem sufficiently threatening to require an air escort. If the 747 had then turned east toward its normal route, it apparently would have been let go without a word of complaint.
For the next 34 minutes of KAL 007's flight over the Sea of Okhotsk, an area that the Soviets consider a safe haven for their nuclear ballistic missile submarines, the airliner was alone in the sky, although being followed by radar, Ogarkov said. The map displayed at Ogarkov's unusual Moscow press conference indicated that U.S. reconnaissance planes regularly appear above the Sea of Okhotsk. Perhaps the Soviets thought the plane was headed toward that location.
When it failed to turn away from Soviet territory and instead approached Sakhalin, the Soviet air defense forces were prepared to take more direct action. By now, the airliner had been tracked for almost 90 minutes and had spent over 60 minutes in airspace the Soviets consider their own. And, if you believe American intelligence sources, the Soviets had not yet had a look at just exactly what kind of plane it was.
When the airliner was roughly 200 miles off the coast, at about 5:42 a.m., six Soviet interceptors were scrambled from two airbases on Sakhalin, according to Ogarkov. According to the U.S.-released tapes, it took an amazingly-long 23 minutes before the first interceptor was able to report to his ground controller, "I see it."
By then it was 6:05 a.m. The airliner and trailing interceptors were still over the Sea of Okhotsk, flying over 500 miles an hour, and KAL 007 was only six minutes away from another intrusion into Soviet airspace. At that point Sakhalin is only about 80 miles wide. This left the interceptors, their ground controllers and commanders very little time to identify, warn and take action before KAL 007 would return to international airspace over the Sea of Japan.
At 6:15 a.m. the pilot of plane 805 reported he had locked on his missile, readying it to fire. At that same minute, the pilot of KAL 007 asked the tower in Japan for clearance to climb to a higher altitude. At 6:20 a.m., the Soviet pilot apparently was told to unlock his weapons and go closer to the plane and fire a warning cannon burst. It took him less than 50 seconds to execute that order but his increase in speed took him ahead of the airliner, which had begun its climb.
At 6:23 a.m., he slowed and settled in behind the airliner. Three minutes later he reported, "I have executed the launch." American sources say at that point KAL 007 was less than seven miles (a minute's flying time) from international air space.
The episode also raised questions about U.S. and Japanese intelligence.
The aircraft vanished from Japanese radars at 6:38 a.m. But hours later, there was neither word about, nor concern for, the lost flight.
Then there was the mixed-up story of a forced landing -- a conclusion hastily drawn by analysts who had spotty information that a Soviet aircraft had fired a missile and a radar track that showed the aircraft in a 12-minute descent into the water.
In fact, the story was developed and passed through both the State Department and the Pentagon -- and even to the Soviets -- that the plane was down and on Sakhalin.
Just how capable are U.S. collection facilities? The Soviets say they sent six planes up over Sakhalin, but released U.S. tapes record only four.
There are also questions about all the other intercepts that now are being reviewed, some of them for the first time, according to official sources. The dropped line about warning cannon fire could have proved a major embarrassment if the rest of the evidence had not been so clear that the Soviets were rushing to shoot the plane down before it again escaped from their airspace. One expert who has since heard that tape said recently it was not so difficult to decipher, and he voiced criticism of the initial, faulty translation.
Presumably, the United States has additional information that it is keeping secret to avoid jeopardizing intellicgence "sources and methods."
In the long run, these flawed performances by military and intelligence units may have as much impact on future big power affairs as the shootdown itself. Both sides have the option of trying unilaterally to make their systems work better. But it would be more beneficial if they also could find cooperative means such as procedures to use the existing regional hotlines between Japan and the Soviet Union and thus avoid such grave dangers from unintended events in the future.