Friday, February 15, 2008

Shot of the Day

A hat tip to Noah Shachtman at the Danger Room, for linking to one of the strangest North Korean photos we’ve ever seen--or, perhaps we should say purported DPRK photos (more on that in a bit). Originally posted at TheFirearmBlog, the photograph shows AK-47 assault rifles mounted on the barrels of S-60 anti-aircraft artillery guns.

Obviously, you don’t need to be an air defense analyst to understand that AKs bolted onto AAA weapons don’t have much value, at least from a tactical standpoint. And in a training role, their utility is only slightly better. The range of an assault rifle is far shorter (300 meters) than the S-60 (12,000 meters), and the ballistics of their rounds are vastly different as well.

Beyond basic proficiency skills (point, aim shoot), a AAA crew wouldn’t gain much training from firing a barrel-mounted AK, instead of the anti-aircraft gun. Besides, how would the gun crews fire the AK-47 as a training device? There’s no sign of a remote trigger device (i.e., a long string) in the photo. And a slow-moving or stationary target on the ground is no substitute for the towed aerial "sleeves" or drones that are often used to train AAA gunners. So much for the idea that the barrel-mounted AKs provide meaningful training.

If the photo is legit (and some folks have their doubts), it would raise additional questions about the training of North Korean AAA crews, and the viability of their air defense system. The radar-guided S-60 is one of the most widely deployed air defense weapons in the DPRK; it forms the background of North Korea’s AAA network. There are literally thousands of S-60s in Pyongyang’s inventory, and despite their age, North Korea remains committed to fielding and sustaining the AD system.

So, if DPRK anti-aircraft crews are using AK-47s as training devices, it could mean that Pyongyang is having difficulty in producing (and maintaining) sufficient quantities of 57 mm ammunition. If confirmed, that would be something of a revelation, since manufacturing 57 mm high explosive shells is a relatively inexpensive and low-tech process.

Put another way: if Kim Jong-il can’t produce enough 57 mm shells for realistic air defense training, things must really be bad in military units that use larger quantities of ammunition, or more expensive rounds (say, artillery and tank units).

Still, we’ll take the photo with a large grain of salt. A PhotoShop prank can’t be ruled out, and some have suggested that the photo isn’t from North Korea, citing the Chinese characters that appear in the background. But that would make the photo even more bizarre.

With China’s huge trade surplus, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is positively awash in cash, and (presumably), they can afford sufficient quantities of 57 mm AAA shells for training—not to mention the more expensive air defense systems that Beijing has acquired in recent years, including the state-of-the-art, Russian-built, SA-20 SAM system.


ADDENDUM: A former colleague who looked at the photo is convinced it’s from China, not North Korea. To his knowledge, the DPRK never used whitewall tires on military equipment displayed in parades. On the other hand, those 1950s-style tires are often seen on wheeled military vehicles and trailers paraded by the PLA.


Steve - The Firearm Blog said...

I am quite sure they are Chinese. I made the mistake of calling them NK.

BK Price said...

Just a point of clarification, the S-60 is radar "directed" not radar "guided." There is a growing field of AAA that is radar guided (very costly and technically demanding) so it is important to differentiate the two. Plus, it rates up there with saying a JDAM is "GPS-guided" when in fact, the GPS only aides the INU in determining the weapons position, nothing more.