There has been much reporting on the poor state of the North Korean air force, particularly in terms of the condition of its aircraft fleet. This is mostly attributed to the age of their aircraft, maintenance issues, and the very limited amount of training the airmen receive. These issues have especially been highlighted in the wake of recent crashes of North Korean fighter jets.
It is mostly true that the Korean People’s Army Air Force is heavily burdened by shortages of fuel and spare parts, which cause deficiencies in maintenance and limit the flying time of its aircraft, thus affecting pilot skill. There is, however, at least one type of aircraft – along with the units and airman who operate it – that is an exception: the Antonov An-2.
This is a bit ironic considering the An-2 is one of the oldest aircraft designs currently operating in the KPA (the oldest being the Li-2, of which they have very few). But it is precisely the relative simplicity and primitiveness of this aircraft, along with its versatility, which has allowed North Korea to adapt it to their needs, making it a useful asset to the KPA.
WHAT IS THE AN-2?
The An-2 is single-engine, propeller-driven light utility biplane designed in 1947 by the Antonov Design Bureau to meet a Soviet Ministry of Forestry requirement for a new plane to be used in agricultural and utility roles. It was designed to be a highly versatile aircraft that could be adapted for various roles and has been used for airlift (personnel and cargo transport, including paratrooper transport), agriculture, training and light bombing, among other purposes.
The An-2 at the War Memorial of Korea museum, Seoul | Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The aircraft was primarily built in Russia, but also in Poland, Ukraine and China, under the Chinese designation of “Y-5”. It is also known by foreign reporting names such as “Type 22” by the U.S. Department of Defense and “Colt” by NATO in general (including the U.S.). The An-2 has been employed in some capacity by the militaries of at least 50 different nations and by many civil operators (airlines, etc.) worldwide.
The An-2, which is piloted by a one- or two-man crew and can carry up to 12 passengers, depending on configuration, is a highly versatile and adaptable aircraft. Aside from being easily modified for different roles, the An-2 is considered relatively easy to both fly and maintain. It is capable of extremely short takeoff and landing and can operate from nearly any flat, open area. Its flight range is about 845 kilometers (525 miles) and can fly up to 258 kph (160 mph). But it is actually its slow speed capability that is most important for the An-2: The aircraft can fly as low as 48 kph (30 mph), allowing a pilot to conduct more precise maneuvers in close proximity to terrain and objects without crashing. These characteristics are all critical to the An-2’s importance for North Korea.
ROLE, HISTORY IN KPA
The specific role of the An-2 aircraft in the KPA is a big part of what makes them such significant assets and why North Korea puts great effort into maintaining them. The primary function of North Korea’s fleet of An-2s is to transport special operations forces, including paratroopers, into South Korean territory. At least some are armed with rocket launchers to fire upon ground targets, likely in support of special forces assaults.
An An-2 firing rockets at an air force drill in May | Photo: Rodong Sinmun
Aside from the fact that it has the space for the troops, one of the reasons North Korea uses the An-2 in this role is its potential to successfully infiltrate the South. By flying at lower altitudes, especially when following terrain, the aircraft can decrease the possibility of detection by radar. Radars have limited view of lower altitudes due to obstruction by terrain (i.e. “terrain-masking”) since radars operate on line-on-sight. Korea has very mountainous terrain, so this is something the North can exploit. The relatively small size of the aircraft also makes it less detectable on radar than most transport aircraft.
Additionally, North Korea has modified the An-2 to enhance its “stealth” characteristics. Much of the metal in the aircraft, where possible, has been replaced with wood or canvas. These materials have a smaller radar return (they reflect the radar signal less) than metal and therefore the aircraft’s radar signature is relatively small for its size. This characteristic, combined with evasive flight tactics, greatly increases the chances of successful infiltration.
The An-2 has been in service in the KPA since the early-to-mid 1950s and they have been acquired from several different countries. Joseph Bermudez, a North Korea military expert and co-founder of AllSource Analysis, told NK News the KPA Air Force “operates both the An-2 (from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe) and the Y-5 (from China).”
“A few may have been received from the Soviet Union during the last year of the Korean War, but they began showing up in North Korea after the war,” he said.
At present, there are estimated to be about 300 An-2s in the KPA inventory. About 270 can be observed on the most recent commercial satellite imagery of North Korean airfields and it is likely that even more remain out of view.
An-2s at Taechon Airfield as seen on Google Earth
Like other aircraft in North Korea’s air force, the An-2 is organized into air regiments (ryeondae) – alternatively translated as “wing.” There are currently at least six An-2 regiments of about 45-50 aircraft each in the KPA Air Force. Most, if not all, of these air regiments are formally subordinate to the KPA Air Force’s 5th Transport Division, but in practice, they likely receive much of their operational command and control from the Reconnaissance General Bureau, which manages North Korea’s clandestine special operations and reports directly to the National Defense Commission.
Known An-2 regiment locations:
Kuktong Airfield – Myonggan, North Hamgyong Province – 30 aircraft observed
Kwaksan Airfield, North Pyongan Province – 57 aircraft observed
Manpo Airfield, Jagang Province – 47 aircraft observed
Sondok Airfield, South Hamgyong Province – 49 aircraft observed
Taechon Airfield, North Pyongan Province –51 aircraft observed
Yongpo-ri Airfield, South Hamgyong Province – 37 aircraft observed
Former and alleged locations:
Mirim Airfield, Pyongyang – one, last observed in 2006
Changjin, South Hamgyong Province – alleged location, no aircraft observed
Hyesan, Ryanggang Province – alleged location, no aircraft observed
An-2 unit locations in North Korea | Map: Google Earth
North Korea continues to maintain and operate the An-2, including in prominent military drills. In 2014 alone, there have been at least three, likely four, publicized North Korean military events featuring the An-2. Most recently, the KPA conducted a paratrooper-training drill to coincide with the end of the U.S.-ROK Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise. This drill was attended by Kim Jong Un and reportedly lasted three days, followed by a photo session with Kim and the members of the participating units, including Unit 858. They were used similarly in a nighttime paratrooper drill in January, were featured in a KPA Air Force “combat flight contest” in May, and were likely used in an island landing drill in July.
POTENTIAL THREAT TO SOUTH
The An-2, because of its capabilities, role in special operations infiltration, and the level of maintenance it receives from the KPA, is one of the most threatening North Korean air assets. One of the key components of North Korea’s military strategy, should it ever go to full war with the South, is to open a second front behind enemy lines using special operations forces. Infiltration platforms such as the An-2 are critical to the success of this plan.
South Korea has already faced several notable incidents of infiltration which have undermined their sense of security and generated concern over the quality of the South’s defenses. Most recently, at least three North Korean unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) – also known as “drones“ – have successfully crossed deep into South Korean territory. The An-2 is, obviously, larger than these UAVs, but it still considered difficult to detect and track.
Seoul, though, is clearly aware of the threat posed by the An-2 and has taken measures to counter it. The South Korean military reportedly possesses at least two An-2s for the purpose of training their own forces at detecting the aircraft in order to improve the ability to defend against North Korean infiltration. John Webster, Sr., a private An-2 pilot and webmaster of AN2flyers.org, told NK News he “once flew an AN-2… as a target for F-15 radar detection tests.” He explained that this “was related to Lockheed sales of fighters to South Korea as a proof of their ability to detect and destroy North Korean An-2s.”
This shows that not only does North Korea use the An-2 for an important role and put significant effort into keeping it in service, but that South Korea acknowledges the capability and threat of this aircraft and the units operating it. Pyongyang will likely continue to maintain its An-2 fleet and train its pilots, paratroopers and other personnel to make effective use of it. Meanwhile, Seoul will certainly try to improve its ability to defend against it.
There has been much reporting on the poor state of the North Korean air force, particularly in terms of the condition of its aircraft fleet. This is mostly attributed to the age of their aircraft, maintenance issues, and the very limited amount of training the airmen receive. These issues have especially been highlighted in the wake of recent crashes of North Korean fighter jets.It is mostly
John G. Grisafi is an analyst and Korean linguist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Having previously worked as an analyst for the United States Army in South Korea and studied Korean at the Defense Language Institute, he is now majoring in East Asian Languages & Civilization and History at the University of Pennsylvania.