Footage of a surface-to-air missile (SAM) exercise conducted earlier this week in the southwest of the country under the supervision of Kim Jong Un shed light on some of the most prevalent systems that make up the DPRK’s strategic air defense network.
The rare coverage also included one of North Korea’s newest additions to its SAM arsenal, a missile launcher that to date was not known to have been tested. First paraded through the streets of Pyongyang in 2012, this contraption combines the Soviet-legacy S-125 SAM (NATO designation SA-3) with a KrAZ-255B truck, thereby mobilizing the system. It is unknown how many missiles took part in the exercise, or what the simulated targets and objectives entailed. However, North Korean state media reported that Kim Jong Un had underlined the need for the development of new types of air defense missiles, further underlining the trend of modernization currently taking place among the reclusive nation’s air defense forces.
The S-75 (NATO designation: SA-2), another product of Soviet origin, also made an appearance during the exercise. At least two launchers, along with their associated RSNA-75M “Fan Song F” fire-control radar, were placed amid the rural fields where the drill took place. Although several programs aimed at improving the combat effectiveness of the aging S-75 have been initiated over the past few years, including creating a similarly mobilized and substantially upgraded variant based on a North Korean manufactured MAZ-630308-224, the systems in the exercise do not appear to have been modified in any way. It should be noted that as was the case in SAM exercises of the past, the fixed S-75 launchers were taken from their ordinary fortified SAM sites and moved to where the drill was taking place. This is done presumably to increase the number of different systems capable of participating, and to test the reaction time of the SAM systems should they be relocated in times of war.
Although other recent developments such as the Pongae-5 (KN-06) and Pongae-6 long-range SAMs were not featured , the exercise highlights the fact that North Korea is serious about renovating its air defense forces to give it a fighting chance against its ever evolving opponents. The DPRK’s strategic SAM network has historically consisted of dozens of fixed S-75, S-125 and S-200 SAM sites. Despite often being described as one of the densest air defense networks in the world, the dated missiles used were shown to be largely ineffective against a modern fighting force during the Gulf War, when the U.S.-led coalition faced a similar network and had relatively little trouble subduing it.
Certain measures taken by the DPRK to increase the survivability of its SAM sites, including basing all of their S-125s inside hills, still were not enough to close the gap, and so the more modern doctrine of using mobile systems that are hard to track and can be set up anywhere in little time began to be adopted. The North Korean S-125 variant, which is thought to have been designed sometime in the early 2000s, is not the first to undergo this particular development. In order to increase the system’s capabilities and to keep it attractive to potential customers, nations such as Russia, Poland, Cuba and even Baathist Iraq all mated two or four launch rails with a mobile chassis in a similar fashion during the past two decades.
Whether any other improvements or upgrades also seen on these systems have been performed on the North Korean variant is unknown. Even though the transporter erector launcher (TEL) seen during the exercise showed several hints of modifications made when compared to the parade variant, no external differences between the missile launched and the regular V-601 used by the S-125 were apparent. The original S-125 has a slightly shorter maximum range than the older S-75 (some 35 kilometers as opposed to 56), but is much more maneuverable, making it useful against a much larger range of targets including even cruise missiles in newer variants.
In 1999 a Yugoslavian S-125 became the first and only SAM system to score a hit on a stealth aircraft, downing a United States Air Force F-117A by using clever techniques and prior knowledge of its flight path. Although the F-117 has since been retired and it’s unlikely the same mistakes would be made again during a potential war on the Korean Peninsula, it is certain North Korea has laboriously studied this event to better learn how to deal with modern stealth aircraft such as the F-22, F-35 and B-2. Even though its origin lies in dated technology, the mobile version of the S-125 could pose a substantial threat in times of war, especially when combined with other emerging technologies such as its newly mobile S-75 counterpart and the KN-06. If anything, the recent exercise serves to emphasize the fact that despite its many shortcomings the Korean People’s Army is still being modernized, and has come a long way from the decaying structure it was at the turn of the century.
Featured image: S-175 launch, KCNA
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