North Korea’s Leap Forward in Air Defense Modernization 

By | May 04, 2024 | No Comments

North Korean missile test, released on 20 April 2024, image via Korean Central News Agency

On April 20, North Korean state media released a single image of a missile coming out of a vertical climb after launching from a mobile vehicle. The post by Pyongyang-based Korean Central New Agency confirmed the testing the previous day of the new Pyoljji-1-2 surface-to-air missile system. Among specialists, the launch vehicle had a close resemblance to those used by the Pyongae-6 air defense system, which was first unveiled in 2020, leaving some uncertainty as to whether the Pyoljji-1-2 is a new system or simply a new class of missile for the existing system. While largely overshadowed by the modernization of the country’s ballistic and cruise missile arsenals, which has recently included major breakthroughs in programs ranging from solid fuelled ICBMs to intermediate-range hypersonic glide vehicles, the testing of a new surface-to-air missile serves to highlight the extent to which North Korean air defense capabilities have also been revolutionized over the past decade. 

2017 as a Turning Point

Prior to 2017 and North Korea’s landmark first demonstration of an intercontinental-range missile strike capability, the country’s air defenses had largely been considered obsolete and remained dependent on Soviet-supplied S-75 and S-200 systems. The world had, in the preceding decades, largely shifted from fixed-site to road-mobile air defense systems to significantly improve survivability and to systems with multi-channel guidance capabilities to simultaneously engage different targets. The designs of the systems in North Korean service all dated back to the pre-Vietnam War era and, therefore, posed only a limited challenge to modern combat aircraft.

The S-75 and S-200, even in the 21st century, could offer some degree of protection, as demonstrated by their shootdowns of American F-15 and F-16 fighters during the Gulf War, the Yemen War and the Syrian War, despite significant shortcomings in the networks within which they were operated. Indeed, only last month, an S-200 brought out of storage in Ukraine was credited with the country’s most high-profile kill against a Russian combat aircraft in its two-year war effort. Short of acquiring wholly new systems, North Korea made efforts to significantly improve air defense capabilities in the 1990s and 2000s, including heavily fortifying missile and radar sites underground and providing a degree of indigenous modernization, although this work still fell far short of keeping up with advances in offensive aerial warfare capabilities being made abroad. 

Amid an uptick in DPRK-Russia military ties, Kim Jong-un makes progress in  modernising North Korea's conventional air defences.
Missile Battery From S-75 (SA-2) System in North Korean Service (KCNA)

A major turning point for the modernization of North Korean air defenses was the entry into the service of the Pyongae-5 long-range surface-to-air missile system in 2017. Technologically, several decades ahead of its Soviet-supplied predecessors, the system provided capabilities broadly comparable to the Russian S-300PMU and, according to multiple sources, saw its development benefit from significant Russian technology transfers.

A CSIS assessment that year credited the Pyongae-5 with causing “the loss of the edge the U.S. has enjoyed in the use of air and cruise missile power” in Korea due to its advanced interception capabilities. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had earlier that year referred to the system following a landmark test as one that would “completely spoil the enemy’s dream to command the air.”

Supply Chains and Capabilities

Much like the S-300, the Pyongae-5’s radars, control center, and missiles were mounted on mobile vehicles. while all other parts of the system were reportedly produced in North Korea to ensure secure supply chains, Jane’s Intelligence reported that up to 156 transporter erector launchers were acquired from Russia itself. Although the program had faced long delays after it began in the 1990s, the development of an indigenous equivalent to the S-300PMU with a full supply chain for its parts, including electronics, was at the time one of the most significant achievements of the North Korean defense sector outside the ballistic missile program. 

The Pyongae-5 was closely followed into service by its more advanced successor, the Pyongae-6, the development of which had been reported since the 2000s. The system was unveiled in October 2020 and subsequently widely compared to the Russian S-400 – which it was speculated by a number of sources to have used similar technologies as a result of further transfer agreements. The very short period between the two systems’ service entries highlighted the possibility that the Pyongae-5 may have been produced as a stopgap, with the technologies available both from Russia and domestically improving significantly while it was under development, creating an incentive to quickly move on to production and procurement of the more up to date Pyongae-6.

Missile Batteries From the Pyongae-5 Air Defence System (images via KCNA).

A few technical details of the system follow: The Pyongae-6 demonstrated advanced capabilities during a test in October 2021, which confirmed that at least one of its missiles benefitted from twin rudder control and a double impulse flight engine. North Korean state media reported at the time that the system had verified its “features of rapid responsiveness and guidance accuracy of the missile control system,” as well as a “substantial increase in the distance of downing air targets” — with references to improvements plausibly having compared it to the preceding Pyongae-5. With the S-300PMU on which the Pyongae-5 was loosely based, having had a 150-kilometer engagement range, the Pyongae-6 could have had an engagement range of between 200 and 250 kilometers, particularly if benefitting from transferred Russian technologies. A notable indicator of the capability improvement these systems provided to North Korean air defenses was that missiles from the S-200 system, designated Pyongae-4 in Korea and formerly by far the most dangerous in the country, could spared for firing into the sea in shows of force — as was done on November 9, 2022.

History and Geography in North Korea’s Air Defences

Air defense has been a key priority for North Korea’s armed forces since the signing of the Korean War armistice agreement in July 1953, in large part influenced by the historical memory of the massive scale and tremendous death toll caused by the intensive US-led bombing campaign across the peninsula. With investments in Soviet air defense systems made on a significant scale, the small size of North Korean territory made it highly defensible and allowed such systems to be concentrated densely on its territory. Thus, even in the Vietnam War years, when the longest-ranged available surface-to-air missile system, the Soviet S-75, could engage targets just 56 kilometers away, North Korea’s airspace could be covered with significant overlap between the systems. S-75s were fielded alongside a range of complementary assets, ranging from a massive anti-air artillery force providing defense at lower altitudes to a formidable pool of fighter pilots with considerable flight hours, with these between them making the country’s airspace among the best defended in the world. The fact that northern approaches to its airspace were secured by the Chinese and Soviet borders and that North Korean territory itself was highly mountainous and forested, allowing airfields and air defense systems to be more easily fortified and concealed, were further factors in its favor. 

In the present day, with North Korea deploying air defense systems with ranges in the hundreds of kilometers, just two Pyongae-6 systems can engage high-altitude targets in the skies over the country’s entire landmass, even if using more conservative estimates of their range. The deployment of multiple systems on mobile launchers thus allows for very significant overlaps in coverage, meaning any incursion could be met with simultaneous missile attacks from several directions that pose significant difficulties to defend against. Deployment of networked air defense radars operating in different wavebands and across different regions is also considered one of the most effective means of increasing detection ranges against stealth targets, with the density of radar systems covering a relatively small territory making it far more difficult even for very low observable aircraft or cruise missiles to penetrate.

Although the standing of North Korea’s fighter fleet today is very far from what it was in the Cold War era, this too is expected to see improvements, with images having confirmed the integration of modern cockpit displays onto fighters, while in October 2021, modern classes of infrared and radar guided air-to-air missiles were seen at the National Defence Development Exhibition Self Defence 2021. Much like ground-based systems, fighter modernization and the development of new air-launched weapons could be assisted considerably by technology transfers. A notable indication of a renewed emphasis on the fighter fleet has been the work done to modernize Sunchon Airfield, where MiG-29 fighters and Su-25 attack jets are based, as well as the increasingly prominent appearances of both in media – the former sporting a new color scheme with the national flag on the side of the cockpit.

A Barometer for North Korean-Russian Defence Cooperation

Although lagging increasingly far behind the capabilities of ground-based air defense systems, North Korea’s fighter fleet could see its modernization accelerated through effective leveraging by Pyongyang of neighboring Russia’s need for defense imports. Moscow’s increasingly brazen violations of UN sanctions on North Korea and reports from a range of Western sources, among them the White House, that Korean arms could be paid for by Russian aviation exports and technology transfers have raised a number of possibilities. Among them are increased supplies of spare parts and modernized subsystems for the existing fighter fleet, new supplies of MiG-29s, either complete or for local assembly, or even supplies of entirely new fighter classes.

Kim Jong Un with a pilot after the demonstration flight of a Su-35 fighter jet at a Russian aircraft plant that produces fighter jets in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, about 6,200 kilometers (3,900 miles) east of Moscow, Russia, Friday, Sept. 15, 2023.

Such speculation was heightened when Russia’s Su-35 and Su-57 fighters were closely inspected by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and other figures in the leadership who visited the Russian Far East in September. While the former two options would be difficult for foreign countries to prove if alleging sanctions violations by Russia, a number of loopholes in the sanctions regime could also be used to facilitate deliveries of fighters from new classes.

Regardless of future aviation acquisitions, fighters will continue to operate primarily as supporting assets for North Korea’s ground-based air defenses, much as they do in Russia, rather than shouldering the bulk of air defense duties as they do in China, Japan, or the Western world. While it is effectively a certainty that the North Korean fighter fleet will remain outmatched by those of its neighbors for the foreseeable future, however, the growing diversity of sophisticated and very densely deployed ground-based air defense systems in the country has gradually restored the Cold War status quo of its airspace being among the best protected in the world. Deployment of the Pyongae-5 and Pyongae-6 to replace the S-75 and continued development of new anti-aircraft assets, such as the Pyoljji-1-2, remain at the core of efforts for air defense modernization.

The capabilities of North Korea’s air defenses have very significant geopolitical implications, as while the United States has come close to initiating military assaults on the country multiple times under several administrations, advocates of attacking the country in the West have in the past consistently highlighted the lack of modern anti-air or anti-missile capabilities to argue their cases. As the country continues to cement its position as a major nuclear power and deploy a growing range of missile and drone assets capable of attacking targets from Seoul across the border to New York City on the American east coast, the revolutionizing of its air force’s ability to protect these assets significantly augments Pyongyang’s deterrence capabilities.

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