Image: Fanáticos de la Aviación Militar Cubana Facebook Page
Crippling though it may have been to the North Korean economy and its international standing, the DPRK’s obsession with “Juche” — particularly its defense-related focus — has been uniquely effective at ensuring its armed forces remain well equipped.
Few nations (and none with an economic situation comparable to the DPRK’s) manage to produce quite so many of their armaments indigenously, be it from small arms to armored vehicles, surface ships to submarines, and even a vast array of strategic weaponry.
Yet one branch of its military is served markedly worse by this ideology of autarky than all others, and throughout its history has had to rely on conventional arms deliveries from abroad to satisfy its needs.
The Korean People’s Army Air and Anti-Air Force (KPAAF) still operates no indigenous aircraft. An indigenous aircraft industry was present throughout much of the Cold War though, which now plays a pivotal role in overhauling and refurbishing existing types.
Given the notorious difficulties faced by nations that lack advanced high-tech industries in, for instance, establishing modern jet engine factories, it is unlikely a Juche and/or Songun (“military first”) approach will suddenly succeed in addressing its shortcomings.
When its primary suppliers, the USSR and PRC, suddenly fell away as procurement options during the economic hardships of the 1990s, a secretive acquisition program was launched that sought to come by much-needed spare parts and also entire airframes from less conventional sources.
One of the suppliers that remained willing to deal with the (now almost-universally-regarded) pariah the DPRK had become was Fidel Castro’s Cuba, which was facing a similar isolation itself.
Unlike the DPRK, however, the Cuban leadership appeared to prioritize grappling with its economy over maintaining the size of its hopelessly withering Air Force, and so had no qualms relinquishing some of its assets to the KPAAF (Korean People’s Air and Anti-Air Force).
This has remained the case even in the sanctions era, with the high profile Chong Chon Gang incident of 2013 possibly constituting just one arms shipment going awry among several that did reach their intended destination.
In fact, Cuban air- and rotorcraft deliveries date back to the early 2000s, in a deal whose details are only now coming to light.
Apparently first receiving overhauls in Russia, four Mi-14s and at least two Ka-28s (the export variant of the Ka-27) were exported between 2002 to 2004 at a rate of two per year. Additionally, all associated armaments initially received by Cuba from the Soviet Union made its way to the DPRK, according to an interview this author conducted with Cuban aviation expert Luis Dominguez.
In exchange, the North Koreans reportedly agreed to supply Cuba with submarine technology, possibly enabling the establishment of Cuba’s limited submarine development program.
While North Korea’s history of operating submarines dates back to the mid to late fifties, South Korea began operating submarines comparatively late, with seven Cosmos infiltration submarines and three Dolgorae attack submarines entering service in the early- to mid-1980s.
A much more potent threat arose in the 1990s, when South Korea commenced production of nine Chang Bogo class submarines: a license-produced and improved version of the German Type 209/1200 class.
By this time, the days of large-scale acquisitions for the Korean People’s Army (KPA) were over. It was left with ASW capabilities grossly insufficient in countering the swiftly advancing sub-surface component of its Southern neighbor’s navy.
Nevertheless, since the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) was decidedly not the sole adversary of the Korean People’s Army Navy (KPAN) throughout the Cold War, ASW capabilities were not totally ignored.
Surprisingly, many of its naval craft (including the infamous Najin class frigates) are capable of using depth charges and anti-submarine rocket launchers, and a heavy reliance on naval mines as area denial weapons dates back as far as the Korean War.
The KPAN’s own submarine assets also have limited ASW capabilities, yet it is doubtful that these would be a match for a modern adversary.
Aside from an early attempt at mating a Mi-4 helicopter to the deck of the ill-fated Soho class twin-hulled frigate, the Ka-28s and Mi-14s delivered from Cuba constitute by far the most modern approach to the issue.
Typically based from the decks of warships specifically designed to accommodate them – of which until recently two were under construction in North Korea – ASW helicopters like the Mi-14PL and Ka-28 carry sonobuoys that are dropped into the sea to detect targets using sonar, and can then use torpedoes and depth charges to engage them once identified.
Additionally, they carry their own radar, magnetic anomaly detector, and dipping sonar as non-expendable detection systems. These can also be used to transmit data to other naval combatants or the DPRK’s coastal defense network.
Specific armament for the Mi-14PL is a single AT-1(M) torpedo or eight PLAB-50-65 or PLAB-250-120 depth charges, whereas the Ka-28 can carry a single AT-1MV or APR-2E rocket-propelled torpedo, or six to eight PLAB-250-120 depth charges.
Of course, a wealth of other armaments for these platforms is available, but there is no indication North Korea has been the recipient of any additional ASW weaponry.
One of the suppliers that remained willing to deal with the (now almost-universally-regarded) pariah the DPRK had become was Fidel Castro’s Cuba
While the Mi-14s and Ka-28s represent one of the latest acquisitions for North Korea, they were of course second hand, and for modern standards in fact quite aged. Cuba acquired four Mi-14PLs from the Soviet Union in 1983, with four Ka-28s following in 1988, two of which eventually crashed.
In Cuban service, these helicopters were initially stationed at Mariel Naval Air Station West of Havana, from where they could freely operate in the Florida Strait. They were also frequently detached to Cienfuegos, the home base of Cuba’s own submarine fleet.
When the fall of the Soviet Union wreaked havoc on the economy of virtually every allied nation, and its sole supplier of armaments and spare parts (often received free of charge, in exchange for sugar exports or support to revolutionaries and communist forces around the world like in Angola) disappeared, the Cuban Revolutionary Air and Air Defense Force (DAAFAR) faced a difficult choice.
It could attempt to keep its huge fleet of aircraft operational, at a potentially insurmountable cost and with success uncertain, or it could simply forfeit the oldest aircraft while putting a large portion of its more modern fleet into storage to be used as a source of spare parts.
While North Korea, confronted with the same choice, wholeheartedly opted for the first choice, Cuba went for option two, retiring ever more aircraft as its resources dwindled.
With the imminent threat of war and invasion of Cuba having become unlikely, operating sophisticated equipment such as ASW helicopters became less of a priority, and so were an obvious choice for retirement.
As the KPAAF continues to operate aircraft designed in the 1940s, the Mi-14s and Ka-28s actually represent some of their newest aircraft in service today.
Interestingly, satellite imagery reveals that the two Ka-28 are in fact not the only characteristically coaxial-design Kamov helicopters in KPAAF service.
At least three more are kept together with the Cuban Ka-28s in storage at an East Coast facility North of Wonsan, where all four Mi-14PLs also appear to be held.
It is possible these in fact constitute civilian Ka-32s acquired in a more conventional manner to serve as a source of spare parts, as these rotorcraft otherwise share very little in common with the rest of the KPAAF’s helicopter fleet.
Since the North’s only helicopter-capable naval craft have now been converted to regular corvettes, it is likely this modest fleet of ASW helicopters will now be kept stored at this base to protect the strategically important Wonsan Gulf.
Their efficacy in this role with very limited supporting assets and especially in the extremely hostile aerial environment of a new conflict on the peninsula is doubtful. The fact that the Ka-28s appear to be only sporadically active (usually not even sporting their rotor blades) does not help.
As such, the North’s ASW helicopter experiment appears to have failed, and there remains little to fear from this armament so generously provided by Cuba over a decade ago.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Crippling though it may have been to the North Korean economy and its international standing, the DPRK's obsession with "Juche" -- particularly its defense-related focus -- has been uniquely effective at ensuring its armed forces remain well equipped.
Few nations (and none with an economic situation comparable to the DPRK's) manage to produce quite so many of their armaments indigenously, be it from small arms to armored vehicles, surface ships to submarines, and even a vast array of strategic weaponry.