Argument

I Spy a Frigate … or Two

I Spy a Frigate … or Two

While the world is focused on the threat of more North Korean nuclear tests, Pyongyang has been busy on yet another military front. Satellite imagery from December 2013 and January 2014 has identified two new helicopter-carrying frigates — the largest surface combatants constructed by the North Korean navy in 25 years.

Although the new weapons may be Pyongyang’s attempt to counter what it sees as a growing threat from South Korea’s submarine fleet, these vessels also could have an important secondary role: protecting fisheries, located in the Yellow Sea and Sea of Japan (East Sea), which have important security implications for South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia. They may also represent a step toward developing a naval strategy to include helicopter anti-submarine operations. 

With construction beginning in 2006 and 2007, the first ship was launched in 2011 and the second in 2012. It is unclear, however, whether they are ready for service. Nevertheless, should the KPN, as North Korea’s navy is called, push aggressively to commission these new vessels, it will still likely take several years to fully integrate their new capabilities into fleet operations. 

But these developments aren’t exclusively about the addition of these frigates. What’s notable is that Pyongyang has modernized its military during a period of prolonged and expanding international economic sanctions against North Korea as well as regular media reports about the country’s economic and industrial stagnation and its reliance on outdated conventional military weapons.

North Korea’s deployment of new helicopter-carrying frigates may be an important wake-up call not only about the overall effectiveness of sanctions in constraining Pyongyang’s military programs, but also the need to carefully and realistically re-evaluate reports of its conventional military decline. 

***

During the late 1990s, as North Korea emerged from a prolonged period of famine, floods, and economic collapse, the KPN initiated a modest but wide-ranging modernization and shipbuilding program in an effort to address growing ship obsolescence and decreasing serviceability. Among the many components of this program was the replacement of old weaponry with Gatling-gun weapon systems on a number of patrol vessels, the KPN’s first attempt to incorporate a degree of stealth technology in the design and construction of the patrol vessels; the construction of at least two new subclasses of stealthy fast patrol craft; and three new classes of very slender vessels, including a high-speed infiltration landing craft.

Another key component of this program was the construction of a new class of helicopter-carrying frigates. The KPN first became interested in these vessels during the late 1970s when it designed and then built the helicopter-carrying Soho-class guided-missile frigate (known by the designation FFGH) that presented an unusual mix of military options — a choice that hinted at the service’s possible indecisiveness as to the vessel’s mission. The frigate had a catamaran-type hull, a flight deck that could accommodate one Mi-4PL ASW helicopter, four RBU-1200 anti-submarine warfare rocket launchers, depth charges, four SS-N-2 Styx anti-ship cruise missiles, a 100 mm gun for surface warfare, and various air-defense weapons. The hull was laid down in June 1980 at the No. 28 Shipyard in Najin, launched in November 1981, and commissioned in May 1982.

Location map.

Ultimately, the design was unsuccessful. The frigate was difficult to handle in rough seas. Consequently, it spent the majority of its career in port, only occasionally venturing out to sea and never far out into the Sea of Japan. During the 1990s, Pyongyang moved the frigate to the Singyo-ri Patrol Base on North Korea’s east coast, where it spent most of its remaining career until the summer of 2007, when it was moved back to Najin and finally scrapped in mid-2009.

Soho-class FFGH, No. 823, seen at the Singyo-ri Patrol Base on North Korea’s east coast, Nov. 5, 2006.

The failure of the helicopter-carrying Soho-class guided-missile frigate — combined with the South Korean Navy’s aggressive long-term expansion of its submarine forces, begun in the early 1990s — presented the KPN with serious challenges, given its declining anti-submarine warfare capabilities. The bleak economic realities in the North at the time made it hard for the KPN to address the South’s challenge. But by the end of the 1990s, the North initiated a new modest modernization program that eventually included a new class of helicopter-carrying frigate. The organization in charge of North Korea’s defense industry, the Second Economic Bureau, oversaw the design of the new ship, and the plan was implemented by the Academy of National Defense Science’s Nampo Ship Design Institute in cooperation with its Maritime Research Institute.

The Nampo helicopter-carrying frigate is seen berthed at the Nampo Shipyard in a satellite image on Dec. 27, 2013. Visible are the flight deck with the “H” helicopter landing zone and four probable RBU-1200 rocket launchers on the bow. Adjacent to it is one of the KPN’s new 30m-class VSV (very slender vessel) stealth patrol craft. 

Satellite imagery from December 2013 of the Nampo Shipyard and from January 2014 of the No. 28 Shipyard in Najin provide the first clear details of the KPN’s two new helicopter-carrying frigates, including the status of their construction and details of their armament. The vessel at Nampo was laid down in early 2010 and launched in about October 2011. The one at Najin was laid down in early 2011 and launched by June 2012. It’s unknown whether either vessel has been commissioned.

Another Nampo helicopter-carrying frigate is seen berthed at the No. 28 Shipyard in Najin in a satellite image on Jan. 17, 2014. Visible are the flight deck with the “H” helicopter landing zone and four probable RBU-1200 rocket launchers on the bow.

Both measure approximately 249 feet by 36 feet, with an approximately 95-by-36 flight deck, and they’re armed with a suite of four RBU-1200 anti-submarine warfare rocket launchers. The configuration of the superstructure forward of the flight deck is suggestive of a small helicopter hangar, but this remains to be confirmed. Future additions to the weapon systems carried by these vessels most likely will include a close-in weapon system to defend against anti-ship missiles, small anti-aircraft missile mounts, and depth charges. Additionally, given the KPN’s tendency to mount anti-ship missiles on its larger combatants, these vessels could be armed with a variant of the Chinese C-802 anti-ship cruise missiles in the future.

Although it is too soon to assess the capabilities of these two vessels, their greatest potential weaknesses likely are in radar, sonar, and electronic warfare capabilities as well as anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense because the North’s defense industry is known to have serious shortcomings in these areas. This suggests that, at a minimum, Pyongyang may reach out to external partners, such as China and Iran, for technology or equipment to address these shortcomings. Regardless, should the KPN push aggressively to commission
and operate these new vessels, it will still likely take several years to fully integrate them into fleet operations.

When operational, these vessels will represent a new capability with which North Korea could project its military presence deeper into the Sea of Japan and Yellow Sea — adding a further element of risk to an already tense situation around the Korean Peninsula.

This article is in cooperation with 38 North, which published the original analysis on its website.