Friday, May 4, 2012

Is this one of North Korea's elusive Su-7s?

Click on image to view in high resolution

The above image is of North Korea's Pukchang East Airbase, lifted off Google Earth (A godsend for digital voyeurs of North Korea like yours truly, incidentally) and dated 28 May 2009. Part of the Pukchang Airbase complex, Pukchang East is nominally a helicopter base, home to the Mil Mi-26 "Halo" heavylift helicopters of the Korean People's Air Force (KPAF) as well as various other helicopter types including the Mi-2 "Hoplite", Mi-4 "Hound" and Mi-8 "Hip". But the object that piqued my interest was the lonesome combat jet parked in a revetment in the base, as shown in the close up in the image above. A satellite pass of the base in 2006 showed a similar aircraft parked a couple of revetments away, although it was not there in the other two images of the base in Google Earth, taken in 2004 and 2011.

At first glance, the sharply swept wing and the flat nose section appeared to be that of the MiG-19/Shenyang J-6 (NATO: Farmer) fighter, a mainstay of the KPAF's combat fleet. But a double take soon revealed some detail differences that hinted at something else. For one, the leading and trailing edges of horizontal stabilizers are swept at vastly different angles. In addition, the wing appears to be set much further back along the fuselage than the typical MiG-19 design. Finally, it appears that the trailing edge of the wing joins the fuselage at a right angle. All of which were characteristics unlike the MiG-19/J-6 family, and the image below shows how the Sukhoi Su-7 (NATO: Fitter-A) and MiG-19 appears in plan view (drawings are roughly to scale, to show the size difference between the types). Finally a quick check using Google Earth's measurement tool shows the aircraft to be approximately 16m in length from nose to tail. This is much longer than the single seat MiG-19 day fighter (12.54m) but much closer to the Su-7 (16.8m).

Even by the standards attached to the secretive Korean People's Air Force, the issue of whether North Korea's Air Force operates (or had operated) the Su-7 attack aircraft has been divisive among observers, to say the least. Depending on who you believe, North Korea:

1) Never operated the Su-7 in any way, shape or form
2) Operated 10-25 (1-2 squadrons) Su-7s up till the late 1980s
3) Operated the Su-7 up to the early-mid part of the 2000s

It was noted by some that there was no records of North Korea's state media having shown the Su-7 in it's propaganda, whether in print or television footage. Another (more tenuous) claim was that there have been no Su-7s seen in publicly available commercial satellite imagery of North Korean airbases (it must be noted high-resolution imagery of several North Korean airbases is still publicly unavailable). On the flipside of the argument, there were reports that as recent as 2002 that the KPAF's Fitter-As were still operational and US aircrew stationed in S. Korea were being briefed as such at the time.

So is the aircraft on Google Earth parked at Pukchang (East) in 2009 a rare glimpse of a Su-7 in North Korea? I would put my neck on the line and say most likely. As for what was a solitary Su-7 doing at a helicopter base that has no active runway (NOTE: Pukchang East is linked to Pukchang West by a long taxiway, and the latter has active runways for the resident KPAF MiG-23 regiment) is anybody's guess. And of course, other questions like where are the rest of the reported KPAF Su-7 fleet and what happened to the mystery aircraft since 2009 will be another subplot that is the enigma of the aptly-named Hermit Kingdom.

Czechoslovak Su-7BMK Fitter-A

Background: The Sukhoi Su-7 is a swept wing, supersonic fighter aircraft developed by the Soviet Union in 1955. Originally designed as low-level dogfighter, it was not successful in this role. However, the Soviet Union soon fielded the Su-7B series and the type subsequently became the main Soviet fighter-bomber and ground-attack aircraft of the 1960s. It was exported in fairly large numbers to Warsaw Pact members and client states in the 1960s, and saw action in the Middle East during the 1967 and 1973 wars, as well as in Indian hands against Pakistan during the 1971 conflict. The Su-7 was fast and rugged in its simplicity but its shortcomings included poor range/combat radius, tricky handling characteristics and relatively poor payload (even if it's pair of NR-30 30mm cannons packed a hefty punch).


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Nice find! Yes the North Koreans did operate the Su-7 Fitters. I served in the military from the 1980s and the Su-7s were common knowledge to those tasked to monitor their military. They appeared regularly on the order or battle brief. They used to be regularly seen at Koksan. Any imagery analyst worth their title will confirm that the image shows an Su-7. This is a repost of the deleted comment due to spelling.

  3. Thanks Tom, yes it certainly does look like an Su-7. Koksan had MiG-21s in 2004 and is home to MiG-19s since 2006 according to Google Earth.

    On a side note, do you know where the KPAF's A-5s Fantans are based?

  4. Hi Mike, No problem. Sorry, no info on Fantans.

  5. Baby Kim a President for all seasons...