Operators flying on airways over the Sea of Japan face increasing danger from missile debris as North Korea has intensified the frequency of unannounced launches. The most recent ICBM launch, on July 28, failed on re-entry, creating a large debris field around a well-traveled airway. According to Orlando, Florida-based Flight Service Bureau (FSB), an Air France Boeing 777-300 passed through the airway in question—R211—only minutes before the missile broke into many fragments.
In fact, the international community has recognized the increased danger of a missile or debris strike since 2014, when North Korea stopped notifying it of its missile launches. Before then, ICAO and state agencies had time to produce warnings and maps of the projected splashdown area. Moreover, with North Korea’s development of longer-range Scuds and ICBMs, the missiles now predominantly re-enter in Japanese airspace, creating still further risk to civil aviation.
Meanwhile, the frequency of launches has increased—from 15 mainly short-range missiles in 2015 to 24 mainly medium-range varieties last year. This year, North Korea has launched 18 missiles so far, including the first long-range missiles.
Over that time the landing sites in the Sea of Japan have moved east, creating a higher likelihood of a splashdown through Japanese airspace than into North Korea and rendering airlines’ practice of avoiding the Pyongyang FIR insufficient.
Finally, launch-detection systems don’t work fast enough to allow neighboring countries or U.S. Stratcom to warn Japanese air traffic control in time to provide an alert to en route traffic. Even with knowledge of a launch, traffic already in the area couldn’t move fast enough to get out of harm's way due to the wide expanse in which the missile could fall.
FSB reports that the six missiles that have landed in the area around the AVGOK waypoint and north of the KADBO position over the Sea of Japan this year created as many as 100 pieces of debris, depending on the number of failures on re-entry.
The FSB's guidance for operators includes recommendations to remain over the Japanese land mass or east of it due to the unlikelihood that North Korea would target Japan’s terrestrial territory. It also issued a specific recommendation for airlines operating flights between Europe and Japan to check routings carefully and consider previous missile landing sites in their planning.