Monday, 15 September 2014

North Korea's forgotten aircraft: The Su-7

By Joost Oliemans and Stijn Mitzer

Completely overshadowed by the presence of numerous other types of MiGs, Sukhois and Shenyangs, the Su-7 nevertheless had an important role within the the Korean People's Air Force (KPAF), which it fulfilled for over thirty years.

While it's debatable wether or not Pyongyang's Su-7 fleet remains operational, North Korea is often noted as being the last country operating the Su-7. It took delivery of at least twenty-eight Su-7BMKs, which were ordered in 1969 and delivered in 1971.[1]

However, despite the certainly not insignificant number of delivered aircraft and the fact that the KPAF operates a range of other even more antique aircraft, the Su-7 has long remained elusive in propaganda footage. In fact, even historical footage of exercises and parades throughout the second half of the previous century has never provided any imagery of the aircraft, adding to the theory that all have been retired. The best photographic evidence of these planes in KPAF service comes in the form of a blurry historical shot of Kim Il-sung inspecting an Su-7BMK with serial 727 somewhere in the 70s or 80s, and the presence of a single example at the Korean People's Army Exhibition of Arms and Equipment (top picture).

The mainstay of the North Korean Su-7 fleet has historically been based out of Koksan airbase, although like many other aircraft in KPAF service the planes were likely regularly moved to other airfields. However, at the start of the 20th century the entire fleet seemingly disappeared, leading the intelligence community to conclude the Su-7s had been decommissioned.

For years, the only specimens providing physical evidence of the type ever having been in service with the North Korean military at all were one or two aircraft at Pukchang airfield (which also houses the KPAF's MiG-23 fleet, and numerous helicopters of various types), of which it is not known wether they are even flight capable.

Interestingly, from 2009 to 2011 Koksan airfield was again host to a batch of twelve Su-7s. However, instead of being parked at the paved runway that is also home to large amounts of MiG-19s/F-6s, they were brought to the dirt landing strip on the opposite side of the mountain. Nothing more than dirt roads lead up to this landing strip, raising questions about how the aircraft got there.

The answer lies within Koksan airfield itself. In line with many other North Korean airfields, Koksan has underground aircraft storage facilities, tunneled deep into closeby mountains. Analysis of imagery of the surroundings of Koksan airfield has led to the conclusion that the mountain base features a sort of hidden "back entrance", connecting the dirt landing strip to the main complex. With North Korea's many unpaved landing strips and smaller airfields the Su-7's ability to take off and land on such strips makes it an asset with unique capabilities.

The presence of this large underground complex also suggests the Su-7 fleet may have never left the airfield, and instead has been stored inside all these years. Reasons for their infrequent use could vary from a lack of fuel and spare parts to a perceived lack of use for the aircraft compared to the ubiquitous MiG-19/F-6.

Originally envisaged to be a fighter aircraft, the Su-7 was rerolled as a fighter-bomber shortly after its inception and subsequently widely exported to various Soviet client states in the world. Although the design was deemed a success by India, which utilised the plane in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, the aircraft had a much less successful career in the Middle East.

Used in the Six-Day War, War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War, the Su-7 lacked the range and proper weaponry to effectively engage Israeli armour moving through the Sinai desert. While the Su-7 could carry two additional drop tanks, this ability reduced the number of hardpoints for the carriage of weapons to just four. The S-3 and S-5 unguided rockets it carried were not capable of penetrating Israeli armour. Its inability to defend itself against enemy fighters was also a major flaw in the design of the Su-7.

It is interesting to note S-5 unguided rockets remain the primary air-to-ground weaponry of the KPAF, and, carried in UB-16 rocket pods, are employed on nearly all of North Korea's fighters and fighter-bombers.

Next in the series: The Li-2

Recommended Articles

North Korea's forgotten aircraft: The Yak-18/CJ-5
The KPAF investigated: North Korea's MiG-29s
The Korean People's Air Force inventorised
North Korean fighting vehicles


  1. Yes, the Korean Su-7 fleet
    the second half of the eighties, has become unserviceable

    North Korean Air Force order of battle in 2010:

  2. I believe there is some very brief footage of a KPAF Su-7 at 1:45 in this video:

    1. Scratch that, it's a Chengdu J-7/MIG-21F-13, saw the wings as swept initially.