DPRK’s New Frigates: What are they good for?

A slight update has been posted here. It does not replace this original post and only adds on an additional anti-ship missile option.

Just a short update this week.

Recently Joe Bermudez wrote in an article for 38 North about two new helicopter frigates for the Korean People’s Army Naval Force, one on the west coast and one on the east. North Korea rarely produces frigate sized vessels and the KPA Navy is not well regarded as a naval power in the region, so this is fairly interesting news.

This information was pulled from the table produced by Bermudez in his article:

Length 76m
Beam 11m
Displacement 1300 metric tons
Draught 3.4m
Armament 4 x RBU-1200 1(?) x 30mm CIWS
Helicopter (Either or) 1 x Mi-4PL 1 x Mi-14PL

Expanding on that based on open sources available:

System Range Notes
RBU-1200 ASW 1.2km fires RGB-12 unguided depth charge rockets
30MM Close-in Weapons System (CIWS) 3km This is based on the AK230’s range, which Bermudez lists as the basis for the DPRK’s current gen CIWS.
MI-4PL helicopter 465km total This based on the MI-4’s range. This is total range that the helicopter can fly before refueling
MI-14PL helicopter Range 1,135km This is total range that the helicopter can fly before refueling
C-802/Ghader anti-ship cruise missile 120km to 200km 120 if closer to the C-802, 200 if closer to the Ghader. North Korea’s comparatively recent history of missile cooperation may make the Ghader number more realistic

Unfortunately we at Rice and Iron do not know offhand the standard DPRK loadout for the MI-4PL or MI-14PL, but should we come across this information, we will properly update the illustrations.

Based on Bermudez’s article, we’ve put together a few illustrations of its possible capabilities.

First, here is what the RBU-1200 and CIWS range looks like. It should be remembered that the CIWS and RBU are very much “vertical” systems, in that they aim for aircraft above and submarines below.


For context, here is that circle off the coast

RBU context

The range for anti-ship cruise missiles that Bermudez mentions as a possible upgrade look like this, depending on their variant/upgrade.

Cruise Missile

The helicopters have a significantly longer range. Illustrated below is the radius from the frigate that the helicopter could fly before having to turn around. Note that this figure is half the actual range, and should the helicopter not return to the frigate, it has significantly more range.


To compare the helicopters and cruise missiles:


This ship is interesting for several reasons. As Bermudez says in his article, it is mainly geared towards anti-submarine warfare. The RBU-1200 is an anti-submarine system that launches RGB-12 unguided depth charge rockets, unless some significant domestic upgrade has been made, and the MI-4PL and MI-14PL are both anti-submarine variants of their parent class of helicopter. The Soviets loaded the MI-14PL with a Magnetic Anomaly Detector, sonobuoys, and a diverse collection of anti-submarine weaponry, though we at Rice and Iron are currently unaware of the DPRK loadout.
South Korea’s submarine force is growing, and it currently has 14 commissioned subs with a few more on the way in the next few years. North Korea’s other frigates are armed with anti-submarine weaponry, but their aging fleet of Chinese and Soviet tech ships are not developing at the same rate as South Korea’s much higher-tech fleet.

Additionally, South Korea’s favorable position at the actual peninsular part of the Korean Peninsula means that its submarines and navy can be sent anywhere within its waters. While it may take some time to go from sea to sea, at least the South Korean military has the option of moving its ships where it pleases.

In addition to falling behind in the tech race, the DRPK faces a significantly more frustrating geographic problem. Being situated on the isthmus side of the divide means that its navy is split with each half unable to realistically support the other. Bermudez mentions that one of the two frigates is situated on each coast, so the DPRK’s new anti-submarine frigates aren’t working together.

What baffles us at Rice and Iron is the continued investment in conventional symmetric naval forces, which are incredibly costly in manpower, resources for construction, and resources for continued use. The DPRK’s navy starts any conflict already divided, and is unlikely to win in any regional conflict, and is largely appraised to be most capable of asymmetric action and Special Forces insertion. While the large Najin-class frigates also do have anti-submarine capabilities and thus could take these new ships as compliments, the navy still is outnumbered and outgunned severely by everybody on its border.

Bermudez suggestion of a possible current or future anti-ship cruise missile upgrade makes sense, as then the ship at least would be capable of possibly knocking out opposing naval forces, but at the moment it seems like a too-late response to a threat that the DRPK could never afford to fight. If anything, it seems wiser to continue to pour money into lighter attack boats with anti-ship cruise missile and/or torpedo capabilities instead of heavy, expensive targets.

Perhaps it just our bias towards missile related technologies, but these seems like a bad investment that is just going to burn through money and fuel. One semi-realistic option would be domestic economic pressures. The need for continued production to prevent an industry from completely falling under, in addition to the need for continued employment resource purchases on behalf of the industries may be driving naval purchases more than actual naval strategy.

Something to think on and investigate further.

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6 Responses to DPRK’s New Frigates: What are they good for?

  1. Pingback: Of Fishermen and Borders | Rice & Iron

  2. prkralex says:

    With next to no natural energy resources and a rapidly growing population means managing South Korea’s energy supply is an ongoing challenge. Almost solely reliant on imports, the country’s energy ministry is focused on diversifying supply to ensure long-term energy security, but how is it planning to do this?

  3. Pingback: Brief Review of The North Korean People’s Army: Origins and Current Tactics by James Minnich | Rice & Iron

  4. Pingback: Frigate pictures suggest significant DPRK naval upgrade | NK News - North Korea News

  5. Pingback: New Anti-Ship Missile Option for DPRK Frigates | Rice & Iron

  6. Pingback: Novinky z východní Asie: červen 2014 | Sekuritaci.cz – studentský portál o bezpečnosti

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