The North Korean Air Force (NKAF) lost one of its MiG-21 "Fishbeds" on Tuesday. Nothing particularly unusual about that; while the North Koreans can't match India's record for flying MiG-21s into the ground, they still lose a jet--and pilot--on occasion.
Of course, the NKAF's safety record is aided immeasurably by low flight hours and relatively simplistic training. To save fuel (and preserve its fleet of aging fighters), North Korean pilots average only 15-20 hours of flying time a year. At many bases, the bombing range is located just off the end of the runway, and some squadrons practice "formation flying" by having their pilots march around a drill pad.
Despite those precautions, accidents still happen. Still, today's Fishbed crash wasn't unique because it occurred, but rather where it occurred. According to press accounts, the MiG-21 was more than 100 miles inside Chinese territory when it went down, sparking speculation that the Fishbed pilot was attempting to defect.
There is little doubt the aircraft came from the DPRK. As the U.K. Telegraph reports:
"...Mike Gething, aviation analyst with IHS Janes, the specialist defence publisher, confirmed to The Telegraph that the picture showed a North Korea jet. “It is a MiG-21 'Fishbed’ and from the markings, it is North Korean,” he said.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, citing intelligence sources, also said the aircraft appeared to be a North Korean fighter jet, adding that the pilot had been killed.
“The pilot died on the spot,” Yonhap quoted the intelligence source as saying, adding that the pilot was the only person aboard the craft.
The report quoted a second source as saying the plane may have lost its direction while attempting to fly to Russia to escape from North Korea.
Predictably, Pyongyang has said nothing about the incident. Chinese media confirmed the incident, but offered few details, saying only that an aircraft of "unidentified nationality" went down in Liaoning Province, which lies between North Korea and Russia's Far East region. The crash site is about 150 miles inside Chinese territory, raising questions about why the MiG-21 was allowed to fly so far into PRC airspace.
While Beijing is red-faced over a potential failure of its air defense network, North Korea must face the humiliating fact that one of its fighter pilots--among the nation's military elite--tried to defect in his Fishbed. While defections by NKAF pilots are not unprecedented, they are rare; there have been only two in the last 27 years. In both cases, the pilots flew their jets to South Korea, which offers huge cash awards to military defectors from the North.
At this point, no one is sure why the pilot pointed his Fishbed towards Russia, and not the ROK. However, the plan was probably a product of geography, operating patterns and available fuel.
First, it's important to note that most North Korean MiG-21 regiments, indeed, the entire NKAF, is largely grounded this time of year. Military personnel, including fighter pilots, are mobilized to work in the fields during the summer, in hopes of warding off food shortages and starvation during the winter.
One of the few Fishbed units that maintains any semblance of a summertime flying schedule is based at Kyongsong, along the DPRK's northeastern coast. The squadron based there is a training unit, which produces new MiG-21 pilots and instructors for the rest of the NKAF. That base represents the most likely starting point for the reported defection attempt.
From Kyongsong, it's a relatively short hop (less than 200 NM) along the coast to the Russian port of Vladivostok--just a few minutes' flying time in a Fishbed. But the jet went down in China, suggesting the pilot took a more northerly route. Why not fly directly to Russia?
Two reasons immediately come to mind: first, North Korea's limited air defenses in the area (primarily SA-2 Guideline SAMs0 are concentrated along the coast--the very corridor that would be used in a direct defection dash to Russian territory. Additionally, the air defense threat increases geometrically when you enter Russia's air space, which is guarded by SA-20 SAMs. An aircraft entering Russian territory from the south--at high speed, and (most likely) without an IFF signal) would almost certainly be engaged by Russian SAMs and/or fighter aircraft.
On the other hand, a less direct route would allow the pilot to fly to training airspace inside North Korea and loiter there for a few minutes before starting his dash to Russia. Following that path, the MiG-21 would first enter Chinese airspace, then turn towards Vladivostok from the west. Descending to low altitude, the pilot could use terrain masking to defeat radar coverage and reduce the threat from SAMs and fighters.
One thing is certain: the NKAF jet almost certainly had a reduced fuel load. For years, the North Koreans, Chinese (and others) have limited on-board fuel supplies, as an anti-defection technique. Indeed, wreckage of the MiG-21 suggests an aircraft that made an attempted crash landing, since much of the fuselage and tail remains intact. By comparison, a jet shot down by SAMs, AAA or another fighter would be in smaller pieces, over a much larger area. If crash-scene photos are any indication, the pilot may have been attempting to guide his aircraft to an "unpowered" landing; in other words, he ran out of fuel and was trying to glide in when the Fished struck the ground.
Under normal procedures, North Korea would have used air or ground-based air defenses to knock down the fleeing jet and its pilot. But there are no reports of SAM launches from the area, so that apparently didn't happen. That suggests a certain degree of laxity among NKAF air defense units--and heads will certainly roll in the aftermath (remember: this is the same regime that reportedly tortured its World Cup soccer squad after their "poor" showing in South Africa).
But the attempted defection also shows a fair degree of planning on the pilot's part. Familiar with NKAF ground control procedures, he appeared to be on a normal training sortie, allowing ground controllers and air defense commanders to grow complacent. Unfortunately for him, a limited fuel supply (and probably, limited cross-country navigation skills) left the pilot unable to find his way to a Russian airfield.
If the North Koreans follow their normal custom, a standdown is already in effect among MiG-21 units (and probably) the entire Air Force. There will be lots of political reliability training and interviews in the coming days, as Kim Jong-il tries to ferret out any other (potential) defectors in the ranks.