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Korean People's Army Air Force

The air force became a separate service in 1948. The air force adapted Soviet and Chinese tactics and doctrine to reflect North Korea's situation, requirements, and available resources. Its primary mission is air defense of the homeland. Secondary missions include tactical air support to the army and the navy, transportation and logistic support, and insertion of special operations forces. A large force, the air force also can provide limited support to ground forces.

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.

North Korea's pre-war airfields were destroyed and not repaired during the war. By the end of 1953, the Corps of Chinese Volunteers was withdrawn from Korea and KPA units took control of positions at 38th parallel. A major reorganization of all the KPA armed services began, accompanied by massive acquisitions of new weapons systems from the USSR. Some ten airfields were constructed for the NKAF at that time. In 1961, USSR and KPDR signed the Treaty of Mutual Assistance and Military Cooperation with many additional secret protocols that even now are classified. In accordance with these protocols, in 1961-62, the NKAF received MiG-19 supersonic fighters and S-25 "Berkut" SAM's. The KPA received airborne and artillery chemical ordnance and began training for combat under chemical and radiation contamination conditions. After 1965 the North Koreans began receiving MiG-21F fighters and S-75 "Dvina" SAMs.

The Soviet and Chinese-made equipment the NKAF is armed with comprises mostly obsolete types that are not suitable for the modern combat environment. However by the beginning of the 1980's, the NKAF began a new round of modernization: in addition to 150 MiG-21's, the NKAF received from the USSR a batch of 60 MiG-23P fighter-bombers and MiG-23ML close-support fighters and from China - 40 Q-5 Fantan ground attack planes (There is some discprenancy about this number. One source lists North Korea as receiving 150 Q-5's while most others believe that number to be 40). These elite 56th Guards and 57th Fighter Regiments are equipped with MiG-29 and MiG-23 and are based near Pyongyang to defend the capital.

During the 1980s, the NKAF substantially increased its helicopter inventory from 40 to 275. Helicopters in service include Mi-2/HOPLITE, 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.

In 1992, the air force comprised about 1,620 aircraft and 70,000 personnel. At that time there were three air combat commands under the direct control of the Air Command at Chunghwa, one air division (the Eighth Air Division, probably headquartered at Rang) in the northeast, and the Civil Aviation Bureau under the State Administration Council. The three wings under the Air Force headquarters of the KPA each had one fighter regiment, one bomber regiment, one An-2 aircraft regiment, one helicopter regiment, and one anti-aircraft rocket regiment. Each wing was capable of waging independent operations. The air combat commands, consisting of different mixes of fighters, bombers, transports, helicopters, reconnaissance aircraft, and surface-to- air missile (SAM) regiments, were created by integrating and reorganizing existing air divisions during the mid- to late 1980s. Decentralized command and control gave more authority to regional commands.

At the national level, air defense was once the responsibility of the Air Defense Command, a separate entity from the air force, but which probably was collocated with the Air Force Headquarters in P'yongyang. However, that function probably was transferred to the air force in the late 1980s. The air combat commands appear to have primary responsibility for integrated air defense and are organized with semiautomated warning and interception systems to control SAMs, interceptor aircraft, and air defense artillery units.

  • The First Air Combat Command, in the northwest, probably headquartered at Kaech'n, is responsible for the west coast to the border with China, including P'yongyang.
  • The Second Air Combat Command, headquartered at Toksan, covers the northeast and extends up the east coast to the Soviet border.
  • The Third Air Combat Command, headquartered at Hwangju in the south, is responsible for the border with South Korea and the southernmost areas along the east and west coasts.

As of 1996 the North Korean air force consisted of six air divisions under the direct control of the national Air Command: three are composed of fighter wings, two of transportation wings, and one for fighter training.

North Korea has approximately seventy air bases, including jet and non-jet capable bases and emergency landing strips, with aircraft deployed to between twenty and thirty of them. The majority of tactical aircraft are concentrated at air bases around P'yongyang and in the southern provinces. P'yongyang can place almost all its military aircraft in hardened--mostly underground--shelters. North Korean aircraft are sheltered in underground hangars and plenty of runways are available. In the KPDR there is absolutely no private vehicle ownership but many highways with concrete surfaces and arched reinforced concrete tunnels (for example the superhighway linking Pyongyang with Wonsan), that in case of hostilities are sure to be used as military airfields. It thus seems highly improbable that the NKAF would be knocked out in one strike. North Korea deployed about fifty percent of its fighters in the front area which makes a possible surprise attack to all areas of South Korea. In 1990-91, North Korea activated four forward air bases near the DMZ, which increased its initial southward reach and decreased warning and reaction times for Seoul.

More than 420 fighters, bombers, transport planes, and helicopters were redeployed in October 1995, and more than 100 aircraft were moved forward to the three air bases near the DMZ. More than 20 Il-28 bombers were moved to Taetan which shortened their arrival time to Seoul from 30 minutes to 10 minutes. Over 80 MiG-17s redeployed to Nuchonri and Kuupri are able to attack Seoul in 6 minutes. By these redeployments North Korea intends to make a first strike with outdated MiG-17s and the second strike with mainstay fighters such as MiG-21s and Su-25s.

North Korea produces no aircraft itself, although it does produce spare parts for many of its aircraft. The small village named Tokhyon on the way to Uiju from Sinjuiju is the home to North Korea"s largest munitions factory that produces aircraft. There is another aircraft plant in a suburb of Ch"ongjin, North Hamgyong Province. But it is far smaller than the Tokhyon plant in its size and history.

The North Korean aircraft fleet of Soviet and Chinese manufacture is primarily of 1950s and 1960s technology, with rudimentary avionics and limited weapons systems capability. In the mid- to late 1980s, the Soviet Union supplied a variety of a limited number of more modern all-weather air defense and ground attack aircraft. Most ground attack regiments have older model Soviet and Chinese light bombers and fighters with limited range and combat payloads.

In November 1999 the US Government imposed sanctions on the firms directly involved in the transactions -- the Kazakhstan-owned Uralsk Plant Metallist and the private Czech firm Agroplast and against certain Agroplast officials. The contract signed on 14 October 1998 stipulated that 40 MiG-21 aircraft be delivered to Agroplast, a Czech firm acting as an intermediary for North Korea. The US Government did impose and then waive sanctions against the Kazakhstan Government, which had been cooperating closely with the US in the investigation follow up on this sale. The government candidly admitted that the transfer occurred contrary to official government policy. In March 1999, an international scandal followed the discovery of six disassembled MiG-21s and their spare parts aboard a Ruslan transport aircraft at Baku city airport. Kazakhstan had transferred lethal military equipment, specifically about 40 MiG-21 fighter aircraft, to North Korea. The Kazakhstani government finally admitted that the MiGs were sold to North Korea and that five shipments of a total of 30 MiG-21s had successfully taken place.

P'yongyang was rather late in recognizing the full potential of the helicopter. During the 1980s, the North Korean armed forces increased their helicopter inventory from about forty to about 300. In 1985, North Korea circumvented United States export controls to indirectly buy eighty-seven United States manufactured civilian versions of the Hughes MD-500 helicopters before the United States government stopped further deliveries. Reports indicate that at least sixty of the helicopters delivered were modified as gunships. Because South Korea licenses and produces the MD-500 for use in its armed forces, the modified helicopters were useful in North Korea's covert or deceptive operations. The transport fleet has some Soviet transports from the 1950s and 1960s.

The air force has a marginal capability for defending North Korean airspace and a limited ability to conduct air operations against South Korea. Its strengths are its large numbers of aircraft, a system of well-dispersed and well-protected air facilities, and an effective, if rudimentary, command and control system. Its weaknesses include limited flight training; forced reliance on outside sources for aircraft, most of its missiles, radars, and associated equipment; and maintenance problems associated with older aircraft. The effectiveness of ground training--on which the pilots heavily depend--is difficult to judge because there is no information on P'yongyang's acquisition or use of sophisticated flight simulators.

Pilot proficiency is difficult to evaluate because it is crudely proportionate to hours and quality of flight time. Although the Republic of Korea Ministry of National Defense's Defense White Paper, 1990 states that flight training levels are 60 percent of South Korea's, other sources believe the figure is closer to 20 to 30 percent. Lower flight times are attributed to fuel shortages, a more conservative training philosophy, and perhaps a concern for older airframe life expectancies or maintenance infrastructure capacity. The training of pilots on the NKAF's most modern aircraft is much more significant than "seven flying hours per year" sometimes claimed in the West. But air crew are being trained in accordance with outdated procedures and, with lack of fuel, have very little experience.

Operational thinking reflects both Soviet doctrine and the North Korean experience of heavy bombing during the Korean War. The result has been in reliance on air defense. Military industries, aircraft hangars, repair facilities, ammunition, fuel stores, and even air defense missile systems are placed underground or in hardened shelters. North Korea has an extensive interlocking, redundant nationwide air defense system that includes interceptor aircraft, early warning and ground-controlled intercept radars, SAMs, a large number of air defense artillery weapons, and barrage balloons.

Important military and industrial complexes are defended by antiaircraft artillery. Point defenses are supplemented by barrage balloons. North Korea has an exceptionally large number of antiaircraft sites. The largest concentration is along the DMZ and around major cities, military installations, and factories.

The bulk of North Korean radars are older Soviet and Chinese models with vacuum-tube technology, which limits continuous operations. The overall early warning and ground controlled intercept system is susceptible to saturation and jamming by a sophisticated foe with state-of-the-art electronic warfare capabilities. Nevertheless, the multilayered, coordinated, mutually supporting air defense structure is a formidable deterrent to air attack. Overlapping coverage and redundancy make penetration of North Korean air defenses a challenge.

The transport fleet has some 1950s- and 1960s-vintage former Soviet transports, including more than 270 An-2/COLT light transports and 10 An-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.

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 constructed 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 missiles to the DPRK. The SA-3 provides short-range defense against low- flying aircraft. In 1987, the former Soviet Union provided SA-5/GAMMON surface-to-air missiles that gave Pyongyang a long-range, highaltitude, surface-to-air missile capability. The SA-2 GUIDELINE system 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.

Air Force Order of Battle, 1992

Air combat commands 3
Air division 1
Interceptor regiments 12
Ground attack regiments
Il-28 3
Su-25/7 1
MiG-19/A-5 2
MiG-15/17 2
Transport regiments
An-2 6
Unspecified 6
Helicopter regiments 6

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