North Korean Air Force
The North Korean Air Force (NKAF) has the primarily mission of air defense for the homeland. A major additional role is providing lift for special operations forces.
It operates up to 1,300 aircraft — Interceptor, ground-attack, transport, attack helicopter, and transport helicopters — mostly older Soviet makes. Top of the combat fleet is the MiG-29, obtained during the late 1980s from the Soviet Union. Recent additions to the force include MiG-21s, secretly purchased from Kazakhstan in 1999. (Check out the story of a North Korean MiG that ended up in South Korea here.)
The dismal economic state of North Korea has significantly cut aviation training hours and maintenance. The NKAF attempts to counter the increasing age and decreasing capabilities of its fleet by improving its ground air defenses and hardening ground targets. Masters of tunneling, inspired by the devastation of the nation by the US during the Korean War, North Korea is reported to keep entire airfields underground, with only the runways extending into the open.
During a 2010 parade, North Korea introduced a mobile surface-to-air missile launcher/radar system that resembles the Russian S-300/Chinese HQ-9.
One of the most important missions of North Korean air assets is to insert special operations personnel into South Korea during a conflict. Platforms for this include Y-5 (AN-2) Colt biplanes and US-made helicopters, which might be disguised with South Korean insignia during missions. (Sources: Various, including 2013 DoD report to Congress.)
Details on North Korea’s Air Force (Source: USMC)
The primary mission of the NKAF is air defense of the homeland. Secondary missions include tactical air support to the Army and the Navy, transportation and logistic support, and SOF insertion.
Interceptor, ground-attack, transport, attack helicopter, and transport helicopter regiments are formed from over 730 combat aircraft, approximately 300 helicopters, and 92,000 personnel. Although DPRK air- bases are located throughout the country, the majority are in the southern provinces. Pyongyang has the capability to protect combat air- craft in hardened shelters.
The DPRK does not produce aircraft indigenously. Its inventory, though large, consists of many aircraft manufactured using 1950s and 1960s former Soviet or Chinese technology. However, in the 1980s the former Soviet Union supplied some more modern, all-weather air defense and ground-attack aircraft.
Interceptor aircraft are an integral part of the DPRK’s air defense net- work, which also includes surface-to-air missiles and numerous mobile and fixed antiaircraft artillery weapons. Interceptors fly combat air patrol missions to protect DPRK coastlines, military installations, and key urban areas. The MiG-23/FLOGGER and MiG-29/FULCRUM are the most modern interceptors in the inventory. However, the backbone of the air force remains the MiG-21/FISHBED. The DPRK has 120 MiG-21s and over 100 MiG-19/FARMERs. The MiG-21 has a twin barrel 23-mm cannon and AA-2/ATOLL heat-seeking air-to-air missiles. The DPRK’s air defense capability improved in 1984 when the Soviet Union began supplying the first of the 46 MiG-23/FLOGGER interceptors. This all-weather interceptor can carry the AA-2/ATOLL or AA-8/ APHID and the longer range AA-7/APEX missile. Until the MiG-29/ FULCRUM arrived in 1988, the FLOGGER was the DPRK’s most modern aircraft. The FULCRUM, an all-weather counterair fighter, entered service in the former Soviet Union in 1985. Equipped with a look-down, shoot-down radar, beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles, and close-in dogfight missiles, it provides the best airframe against the more modern CFC combat aircraft. Most ground-attack regiments have Russian- and Chinese-produced light bombers and fighters with technology from the 1950s and 1960s. The NKAF has three regiments of Il-28/BEAGLEs, one regiment of Su-7/FITTERs, five regiments of MiG-15/FAGOTs and MiG-17/FRES- COs, and two regiments of MiG-19/FARMERs. The 82 BEAGLEs are medium-range bombers with a radius of 550 nm and a bomb load of2,205 lb. Other attack aircraft include about 100 FARMERs and Chinese versions of the FARMER that have been modified for ground attack. These older aircraft can operate only in daylight and good weather and can only carry small bomb loads.
The NKAF also has 20 1961 vintage Su-7/FITTER ground-attack fighters. The NKAF modernized its ground-attack capability by importing Su-25/FROGFOOT aircraft from the former Soviet Union. Deliveries began in 1988, totaling approximately 36 to date. The Su-25 is a late-1970s aircraft, has a combat radius of 300 nm, and can carry up to 8,800 lb of bombs and rockets. During the initial stages of the surprise attack, the most likely targets for the Su-25 are airfields, surface-to-surface missile sites, headquarters, and other military targets of opportunity.
During the 1980s, the NKAF substantially increased its helicopter inventory from 40 to 275. Helicopters in service include Mi-2/HOP- LITE, Mi-4/HOUND, and Mi-8/HIP. In 1985, the DPRK circumvented U.S. export controls to buy 87 U.S.-manufactured Hughes helicopters. These helicopters are considerably more advanced than those received from the Russians. Although the DPRK has the civilian version, they probably have modified some of them to carry guns and rockets. Because the ROK produces the same model helicopter for its armed forces, the DPRK could modify their Hughes helicopters to resemble the ROK counterparts to confuse CFC air defenses during SOF operations.
The transport fleet has some 1950s- and 1960s-vintage former Soviet transports, including more than 270 An-2/COLT light transports and 10An-24/COKEs. The COLT’s ability to land on short, rough strips, makes it especially suited for the task of transporting SOF units. It can hold 10 combat troops and cruise at 160 kilometers (km) an hour. The NKAF has at least six COLT regiments and at least six regiments of attack and transport helicopters.
DPRK operational thinking reflects both Russian doctrine and North Korean experiences with heavy UN bombing during the Korean War; it relies heavily on air defense. The DPRK houses a large percentage of its military industries, aircraft hangars, repair facilities, ammunition, fuel stores, and even air defense missiles underground or in hardened shelters.The DPRK, with over 8,800 AA guns, combined with SA-2, SA-3, and SA-5, and handheld SA-7 and SA-16 surface-to-air missiles, has con- structed one of the world’s most dense air defense networks. In the mid-1980s, the former Soviet Union supplied SA-3/GOA surface-to-air mis- siles to the DPRK. The SA-3 provides short-range defense against low- flying aircraft. In 1987, the former Soviet Union provided SA-5/GAM- MON surface-to-air missiles that gave Pyongyang a long-range, high- altitude, surface-to-air missile capability. The SA-2 GUIDELINE sys- tem provides medium-range, medium-altitude point defense for cities and military airfields, as well as a barrier defense along the DMZ.SA-2 and SA-3 battalions are concentrated along the coastal corridors, while most SA-5 GAMMON battalions are located near the DMZ and are extended north to cover Pyongyang.
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