By Andy Zhao and Justin Pyke

Introduction

When North Korea threatened to shoot down a B-1B Lancer in response to a September 23rd flight operating off its east coast, a reasonable amount of discussion centred around if the North Koreans have the capability to carry out their threat.[1] This article outlines some of the challenges faced by North Korea if it attempts to shoot down a B-1B operating off the coast in international airspace. Any scenario where United States (US) or South Korean aircraft attempt to penetrate the airspace of North Korea is outside the scope of this discussion.

North Korean Equipment

DN-SN-83-06768
An East German SA-2 ‘Guideline’ similar to that currently operated by the KPAF. (Source: Wikimedia)

North Korea’s primary air defence is provided by the Korean People’s Army Air Force (KPAF). It operates a wide assortment of Soviet/Russian and Chinese equipment, consisting of everything from Chinese J-5s (a MiG-17 ‘Fresco’ derived aircraft) to the Russian MiG-29 9.13s ‘Fulcrum.’ Due to the secretive nature of the KPAF, it is hard to determine the true readiness of these aircraft in inventory. Many KPAF aircraft originate from the 1960s and are likely reaching their maximum airframe flight hours and/or are suffering from a lack of spare parts as indicated by the decreasing numbers of operational aircraft visible on airfields. This appears to be a major concern of the KPAF as in 2013 they attempted to import equipment and spare parts from Cuba. Numerous other problems plague the KPAF, from poor pilot training to the possibility of a largely expired inventory of air-to-air (A2A) missiles (i.e. R-60MKs (AA-8 ‘Aphid’) and R-27Rs (AA-10 ‘Alamo’) were received in 1987).

The KPAF also operates larger ground-based air defence platforms, such as:

North Korea also possesses a formidable array of short-range air defence systems. These are not relevant to the discussion as their range is too limited to pose a threat to a B-1B operating in international airspace.

Understanding the Kill Chain[4]

The process required to intercept an aircraft can be broken down into various steps:

  1. Detect and identify the target;
  2. Acquire the target with fire control;
  3. Identify range and the target direction/angles, paint/illuminate (literally lit up with radar waves) the target for the missile;
  4. Launch the missile;
  5. Guide the missile onto the target;
  6. The missile detonates/impacts near the target;
  7. Observe the target, repeat chain if necessary.

For the target to be intercepted, every aspect of the chain must be followed and must be successful. It is a delicate process, and if any step is interrupted, the target is unlikely to be successfully engaged. The kill chain will be similar regardless of the method used to conduct the interception.

Intercepting the B-1B using S-200 Angara (SA-5 ‘Gammon’) for Interception

S-200 Battery
North Korean S-200 Battery (Onggodok) located on the East Coast [39°19’03” N , 127°20’04” E] – Dated May 25, 2015

We will now take a closer look at the possible engagement of a B-1B by an S-200 surface-to-air missile (SAM) battery. This was the only SAM system likely to be in range of the B-1B flight on September 23rd, though even that is in doubt. For the sake of argument, we will assume a B-1B and its fighter escort stray into this outer layer of North Korea’s air defence. Firing an S-200 would be North Korea’s best shot at a successful engagement against a B-1B, as fighter interception would take more time and have to contend with a US and/or South Korean fighter escort of vastly superior quality. An S-200 SAM battery consists of several components:

An S-200 SAM battery consists of several components:

  • 5N62 (‘Square Pair’) Engagement Radar;
  • SM-106 5P73 Launchers;
  • V-601P 5V28 (S-200) Surface-to-Air Missile.

However, this is not an exhaustive list as the S-200 can also draw on higher assets, such as early warning/intercept radars (ex. P-14 ‘Tall King’ or ST-68 ‘Tin Shield’), or share information along with an integrated air defence network. It must be noted that the S-200 was developed in the 1950s through 1960s with the intention of engaging high-altitude bombers like the B-52 Stratofortress. The heavy missile is not ideal for engaging smaller and more manoeuvrable targets, particularly near its maximum range. The S-200 battery requires a constant feed of range and azimuth data to guide the missile onto the target and uses the 5N62 Engagement Radar to accomplish this task. Once the B-1B has been painted, the SAM battery can attempt to engage it.[5]

US aircraft are equipped with radar warning receivers (RWR), such as the ALQ-161A on the B-1B, that can detect radar emissions and alert the pilot. The pilot can then perform various actions (‘defending’) to attempt to break the lock. The most obvious of these is taking evasive action, but countermeasures such as chaff (small pieces of plastic and fibre with a conductive coating), jamming (providing false signals at the specific frequency used by the radar), and towed decoys (mimics the appearance of the parent aircraft) can also be employed.

Additionally, the S-200 has a poor record of target interceptions. On March 24th, 1986, Libya fired at least four S-200 missiles against two F-14 Tomcats when they were 40km off the Libyan coast. All of them missed their targets, and the engagement radar was destroyed by an AGM-88A High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile, rendering the S-200 battery inoperable. In March 2017, Israeli aircraft launched airstrikes in Syria and were targeted by an S-200 battery, escaping unscathed.[6] In fact, the authors were unable to find a single example of a successful S-200 interception in a combat environment. In summary, the chance of an S-200 successfully downing a B-1B or its fighter escort is very low. The system was simply never designed to engage these types of aircraft effectively.

On September 23rd, the kill chain did not proceed past the first stage. According to Yonhap, the South Korean National Intelligence Service claimed that ‘North Korea did not take any immediate action in response to US’s strategic bombers’ flight.’ A member of the US intelligence community (IC) reached out to the authors and stated that the North Koreans picked up the flight on their early warning radars, but not engagement radars and that seemingly no alerts were sent to any airfields or SAM batteries. The source was unsure of the reason why the North Koreans did not send out alerts, and suggested possibilities varying from confusion/incompetence to a willful decision not to notify air defence assets. Ultimately, the North Koreans were either unable to acquire the B-1B flight with their engagement radars, or decided not to escalate the situation further by doing so.

As an aside, it is worth noting that the eastern S-200 battery’s (Onggodok) engagement radar was no longer present on the newest Google Earth imagery (October 19th, 2015), and was still missing as of May 5th, 2017. The US IC source stated it was likely just routine relocation training, and that there is another S-200 battery located on the east coast. Unfortunately, the authors could not confirm if the new site has the engagement radar, or if the battery was even operational during the September 23rd flight.

Intercepting the B1B using MiG-29 9.13s ‘Fulcrum’ for Interception

KPAF Mig-29
 A KPAF MiG-29 unit being visited by Kim Jong-Un. (Source: Unknown)

The same Yonhap article notes that North Korea has moved additional aircraft to the coast, and CNN claims that they are MiG-29s. A ‘best case’ example of MiG-29 9.13s equipped with R-60MKs and R-27Rs will be used as this is the most capable A2A combat system in the KPAF inventory. North Korea only has around six of these MiG-29 models.[7] If the MiG-29s are fully combat loaded, they only have a 180km combat radius. This can be extended to ~276km with the use of a drop tank. Additional drop tanks can be fitted, but the MiG-29 9.13s would have to forgo the R-27R medium-range A2A missiles that would be critical to a successful interception.[8] Given the locations of North Korean airfields in the eastern part of the country, the MiG-29s would have only slightly more reach than the S-200 battery at best, and would just have one brief shot at the interception before needing to return to base. Additionally, the intercepting MiG-29s would likely not have time to engage with the US and/or South Korean fighter escort. For the sake of argument, the assumption will again be made that a B-1B flight comes within range of fighter interception.

Using aircraft to intercept the B-1B would follow the same general kill chain as mentioned for the S-200. First, the B-1B would need to be detected. This could be done with early warning radar before scrambling the MiG-29s to intercept. KPAF fighters could also be assigned to patrol the airspace around-the-clock, with ground radar assisting the aircraft in attempting to detect the B-1B. The latter is an unlikely option given the limited range of the MiG-29 and is demanding on the aircraft as well as the pilots. There may also be a significant delay between detection of the B-1B and the scrambling of aircraft. The MiG-29s would likely be detected by US or South Korean early warning assets in the region, which would communicate an advanced warning to the B-1B. It could use this time to leave the area, putting an end to the interception. However, if the B-1B is identified and does not leave the area, the MiG-29s still need to acquire it visually to engage with infrared missiles (R-60MKs) or on the radar to engage with radar-guided missiles (R-27Rs). Once again, countermeasures could be deployed, and evasive manoeuvres could be taken to defeat the missiles.

landscape-1504206649-36755613416-05fc74a29d-k
US Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II stealth fighters assigned to the Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, fly alongside 2 US Air Force B-1B Lancers assigned to the 37th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, deployed from Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, over waters near Kyushu, Japan, Aug. 30, 2017, and 2 Koku Jieitai (Japan Air Self-Defense Force) F-15J fighters. Source: US Pacific Command)

If fighters are escorting the B-1B, as was the case on September 23rd, they could intercept the MiG-29s. This would put the escorting fighters at risk. However, it must be made clear that even if the interception were conducted by the best KPAF fighters available (MiG-29 9.13s) using the best KPAF A2A missiles available (R-60MKs and R-27Rs), they would still be at a large disadvantage against US and South Korean aircraft. The countermeasures and missiles are both inferior at the least. For example, the R-27R relies on semi-active guidance, meaning the parent aircraft must keep its nose pointed at the target and maintain a lock with the onboard radar until impact.[9] By contrast, the AIM-120 AMRAAM used by US and South Korean fighters can be fired at an extended range, and course corrected using data from the parent aircraft without the need to keep the MiG-29 painted with radar. The pilot of the MiG-29 would not be alerted by their RWR that a missile was inbound until the AIM-120 reaches its terminal phase, providing little warning of its approach. This gives the US, or South Korean pilots added tactical flexibility over their North Korean counterparts. Any lesser aircraft in the KPAF inventory, such as MiG-23MLs ‘Flogger,’ would be even further disadvantaged.

Conclusion

The possibility of a successful interception of a B-1B operating in international airspace off the coast of North Korea cannot be disregarded entirely. However, the limited reach of North Korea’s air defence, the advanced age and limited capabilities of the systems theoretically in range, and the array of defensive options available to the air forces of the US and South Korea would pose a nearly insurmountable challenge. The high chance of failure (and by extension embarrassment), the possibility of instigating a regime-ending war, and negligible benefits of successfully downing a B-1B leads to the conclusion that North Korea is unlikely to carry out this threat. This is particularly true when North Korea has much more reliable and effective means of provocation, such as continued ballistic missile and nuclear tests.

Header Image: A B-1 Lancer performing a fly-by during a firepower demonstration, c. 2004. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Special thanks to Samuel Stadem, air power enthusiast and current chemistry graduate student at the University of Minnesota Duluth, for providing assistance with the finer points of modern military aviation.

[2] Tony Cullen and Christopher Foss (ed.), Jane’s Land-based Air Defence, 5th ed. (Surrey: Jane’s Information Group, 1992), pp. 261-62, 264.

[3] Richard D. Fisher Jr., ‘North Korean KN-06 Test Confirms Similarity to Chinese and Russian Fourth-Generation SAMs,’ IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, 53:22 (2016).

[4] Robert H.M. Macfadzean, Surface-Based Air Defense System Analysis (Norwood: Artech House, 1992), pp. 39-63.

[5] Cullen and Foss, Jane’s Land-based Air Defence, pp. 263-64.

[6] The Syrians claimed that they shot down one aircraft and damaged another. However, no evidence has been presented and the burden of proof lies with Syria.

[7] Yefim Gordon and Dmitriy Komissarov, Soviet and Russian Military Aircraft in Asia (Manchester: Hikoki Publications, 2014), pp. 265-89.

[8] Yefim Gordon, Mikoyan MiG-29, trans. Dmitriy Komissarov (Hinckley: Midland Publishing, 2006), pp. 341, 377. The drop tank combat radius was extrapolated from the given range and combat radius values. The internal fuel capacity gives a 900km range and 180km combat radius, providing a ratio of 5. The given range on one drop tank is 1,380km. Dividing this by 5 results in a 276km combat radius.

[9] Gordon, Mikoyan MiG-29, pp. 364-65, 487-88.

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