North Korea is Prepping a Hovercraft Invasion Force

Provided the air cushion vehicles don’t rust away first

North Korea is Prepping a Hovercraft Invasion Force North Korea is Prepping a Hovercraft Invasion Force

Uncategorized July 24, 2013 0

North Korean troops carry out beach landing drills with their hovercraft — but how many of them are real? Source: KCNA/KNS via The Atlantic... North Korea is Prepping a Hovercraft Invasion Force
North Korean troops carry out beach landing drills with their hovercraft — but how many of them are real? Source: KCNA/KNS via The Atlantic

North Korea is Prepping a Hovercraft Invasion Force

Provided the air cushion vehicles don’t rust away first

In March the North Korean press office— the Korean Central News Agency — released a photograph of eight hovercraft dropping off troops on a frozen beach. The photograph was promptly picked apart by Alan Taylor on his blog In Focus and shown for the Photoshop forgery that it is.

But the question remains — why doctor an image of landing craft?

As a tool of strategic deception and disinformation, Photoshop is a cheap and accessible tool for regimes wishing to bolster their military’s appearance. Need a few more rockets? Fire up the PC! Can’t get that jet to fly in real-life? Well, why not just ‘shop it into the sky? Compared to the cost of actually doing what you are purporting to, Photoshop’s $630 price tag is pocket change.

Who is the target audience for these pictures? Whereas photographs used to be manipulated for domestic propaganda purposes, such as Soviet doctoring of photographs to increase anti-German sentiment, Iran and North Korea’s attempts have external goals. A show of force looks good not only at home, but to foreign media outlets looking for headlines.

So doctoring photos of rockets and next-generation fighters makes a lot of sense, but why hovercraft?

Satellite image of 22 North Korean hovercraft parked in a base near Cholsan close to the Chinese border. Source: Google Earth

Hovercraft strategy

North Korea is sandwiched between South Korea and China . It has two coasts and thus two fleets. The limited range of its tiny navy makes it incapable of connecting the two fleets, severely limiting the scope of its naval strategy. The navy’s offensive mandate then rests with delivering special forces across the Northern Limit Line onto the islands of the Yellow Sea. They would then likely help the advance on Incheon , South Korea’s second-largest port and part of the Seoul metropolitan area.

Of North Korea’s 130 hovercraft, the small Kongbang-class is the most well-known. The design was apparently taken from the 1960s British Westland Winchester SR.N6 , whose original military variant could carry 55 troops or six tons of cargo 170 miles at 30 knots. The North Korean-made Kongbang can reportedly carry a platoon of special forces to these islands in the Yellow Sea, possibly even as far as Incheon.

The Naval Institute’s Combat Fleets of the World describes three known Kongbang variants:

Aside from the 25-meter Mod. 1 prototype, there are around 55 twin-engine, 21-meter Mod. 2s and 79 single-engine 18-meter Mod. 3s. Each variant can probably transport not more than one squad of fully-equipped troops, and ranges (assuming they are even meant to return) are probably not more than 120 to 150 miles at around 40 to 45 knots. By 2007 or so, 95 others of the class had been discarded.

The South Korean Chosun Ilbo newspaper added a few more details in a graphic appearing on its Korean and Japanese-language pages. According to the paper, the Mod. 2 hovercraft is 36 tons in weight with top speed of 74 to 96 kilometers per hour. The Mod. 3 is 20 tons in weight with top speed of 96 kilometers per hour. And the so-called “hovercraft battleship” — that’s right, battleship — is 34 meters long and 170 tons in weight with stealth features and armed with 57-millimeter cannons to fore and 30-millimeter cannons to aft.

This last entry might come as something of a surprise — a hovercraft battleship sounds ludicrous, but has been the subject of speculation by the South Korean press for quite a while. In 2007, the Chosun Ilbo reported that North Korea had developed a new hovercraft to target South Korean high-speed patrol boats.

This was followed by a report in August 2010 by Arirang TV that this new hovercraft had been “caught in a satellite photo off the North’s Daedong River, near the southwestern Nampo City in South Pyeongan Province.” Unfortunately, that are no known pictures of this alleged vehicle.

This rough depiction of a 200-kilometer (approximately 100-mile) range around Incheon shows how close the Koampo hovercraft base is to the port city. Source: Google

New hovercraft base

In February 2011, the Chosun Ilbo reported that North Korea had begun construction on a combat hovercraft base in the Koampo area of Hwanghae Province, just 50 to 60 kilometers from South Korea’s Baeknyeong Island in the Yellow Sea.

That July the South Korean JoongAng Daily reported that the North’s hovercraft base had been completed. Reports in September of the same year suggested that 3,000 troops from the North’s amphibious sniper brigade had been sent to Pipagot naval base. These are presumably the forces that would be involved in any strike from Koampo.

The base can apparently accommodate up to 70 of North Korea’s hovercraft. Each of the vessels can carry a platoon and travel up to 90 kilometer per hour across water and mud flats. Once the base is completed, North Korean troops could be able to land on South Korea’s five West Sea islands, including Baeknyeong, in just half an hour.

Assuming a low-end estimate of 35 soldiers per carrier, that makes the Koampo base capable of fielding an amphibious wave of 2,450 troops. The base would be able to house almost half of the current estimated total of hovercraft at North Korea’s disposal.

The highly mobile hovercraft are thus the shuttle service of the first wave of strikes on South Korea in the event of a war. North Korea wants to advertise and exaggerate its ability to conduct such operations to make it relevant as a threat to the South.

In December 2010, North Korea held exercises to practice seizing the five South Korean “West Sea” islands, the very islands put at risk by the new hovercraft base at Koampo. “North Korea’s plan is to shell the islands with coastal artillery on a moonless night, render South Korean soldiers at military bases on the islands helpless, then take over the territory with soldiers landing on hovercrafts,” JoongAng Daily reported.

The problem for the North is, the most recent of these vehicles date back to around 1990. It’s likely their condition deteriorates with each passing year. One South Korean government official suggested that 40 percent of the craft involved in the exercise depicted in the photograph at top were inoperable. With sanctions at their toughest, it is possible that many of the craft lack of parts and fuel.

Plus the South is not standing still. After the 2010 artillery attack by North Korea on the South’s Yeonpyeong island, Seoul has become acutely aware of its vulnerabilities in these frontier islands and has begun to counter the threat by procuring AH-64D Apache helicopters for Baengnyeong Island, as well as deploying M-48 tanks, Guryong multiple launch rocket systems, K-9 howitzers, K-10 ammunition carriers, Cobra attack helicopters, the new anti-artillery radar called “Arthur” plus sound detection devices, nocturnal surveillance equipment, precision-guided bombs and unmanned aircraft.

All of this new equipment was supposed to fall under the purview of a new joint West Sea Command, taking responsibility for the islands from the South Korean Marines and spreading it more evenly among all the services, but little has been published on this since 2011.

With Pres. Park Geun-hye at the helm, it seems likely that the strengthening of the South’s islands in the Yellow Sea will continue. Park emphasizes that South Korea must have the robust military capacities necessary to deter further North Korean attacks. Building on that capability, South Korea could then consider negotiations with the North.

How will North Korea react? Is its love for hovercraft about to be dampened, or will it persist with its attempts to deploy a manpower-heavy broken military against the modern might of the South?

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