Images of an anti-ship missile test firing published by North Korean state media on Saturday reveal the existence of one of the DPRK’s most secret programs for the production of advanced naval craft, pictured carrying an indigenous version of the dreaded Kh-35 anti-ship missile.
These naval craft, named surface effect ships (SES), use an effect similar to that powering a hovercraft to reach rapid speeds without sacrificing weight in the form of heavy weaponry. In another exercise early last year, which offered the first glimpse of the new anti-ship missiles, the first prototype of this class carrying them (still lacking true stealth features) was revealed, designated the Nongo-class PTGA by the United States Department of Defense.
The SES in question is the second of a series of now four types of prototypes, and the first to be confirmed to have been put into service. Based on a hull-design seen as early as 2002, the new craft carries a range of the most modern equipment the Korean People’s Navy has to offer, yet lacks the advanced stealth features and heavy weaponry seen on later prototypes, such as the copy of the Italian 76mm OTO Melara.
Aside from the layout of the ship and angled hull, another important innovation tested on this craft comes in the form of trainable racks, meaning the anti-ship missiles can be transported while lying down and raised before firing, a capability that would be fully exploited on later prototypes.
Equipped with two 30mm automated close-in weapon systems (CIWS) based on the Soviet AK-630 (yet fitted in the AK-230 turret), four indigenously-designed 14.5mm rotary cannons, a new surface-to-air missile system and two mounts for two of the lethal anti-ship missiles (opposed to the four per rack seen on other Korean People’s Army Navy ships), this new vessel is an attempt at creating the perfect coastal defense class.
Due to its advanced design and with the prospect of capable stealth features on later variants, it will likely provide opposing navies with a hefty challenge. The variant seen in February lacks actual stealth and radars however (even for the guidance of the 30mm CIWS), and would be quite vulnerable to aircraft, incoming missiles and opposing ships. Surprisingly, it lacks the 81mm chaff dispensers seen on other new and refurbished naval craft.
The anti-ship missiles mounted on the ship now appear to have been modified more extensively from their original, Soviet design than was initially thought. The missiles, which have already been exported to Myanmar, are based on a design capable of hitting targets 130 kilometers away incorporating features such as sea-skimming capabilities and a low radar signature, differ from their ancestors in a modified propulsion system and a slightly lengthened body, and are fired from indigenously designed canisters. During the exercise all four missiles were fired and reportedly hit their target 100 kilometers away.
Although it is unknown to what degree the North Korean defense industry is capable of producing the high-tech components used in the design, it is thought that the modified body and exhaust signifies an increase in payload, and likely also range. Some of the modifications in the design appear to have had their origin in the Chinese C-802 anti-ship missile, which was reported to have been delivered by Iran as part of technology exchanges between the two nations.
The specific class participating in these exercises is stationed in active service at Munchon Naval Base (a.k.a. October 3 Dockyard), slightly north of the eastern harbor of Wonsan, where all of the early SES prototypes were produced. Although at this phase in the development process no significant radar and stealth capabilities are present, the later prototypes show a progressive increase in advanced stealth features, larger amounts (possibly up to four times as many) of anti-ship missiles, and heavier other weaponry donned with angled covers for extra stealth. The ship was finally moved from its shore-based storage building and joined the rest of the fleet earlier last year, after lying seemingly finished ashore since 2009. Around the same time Kim Jong Un also visited the base, but appears not to have inspected the craft itself.
The latest prototypes of these stealthy craft have a strong resemblance to the Norwegian Skjold-class SES in dimensions, appearance and capabilities alike. Although each vessel is different from the next and not all have entered active service yet, the DPRK can officially call itself the largest operator of surface effect ships in the world.
The weapons systems seen on this ‘stealth SES’ signify the general trend of modernization in the KPA Navy, which recently also saw its flagships overhauled with eight of the new anti-ship missiles, chaff dispensers, two 30mm automated close-in weapon systems, a surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, new radars and likely also the 14.5mm rotary cannons. This effort at bringing the North’s navy to the present originates from the 1990s and appears to be picking up speed now that most systems are leaving prototype status and are entering mass production. The future will likely see many more North Korean naval vessels outfitted with advanced weaponry and, most importantly, the indigenous version of the Kh-35 missile, presenting the navies of South Korea and the United States with a novel challenge should increased tensions culminate in yet another series of deadly clashes.
Featured image: KCNA
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