Aircraft Return to Sunchon Airbase?
- Recent satellite imagery acquired on May 1, 2023, shows that the ongoing modernization and expansion project at the Korean Peoples’ Air and Air Defense Force (KPAF)’s Sunchon Airbase is nearing completion.
- Significantly, the imagery shows the presence of ten aircraft—the first observed in two years.
- The Sunchon Airbase houses is home to KPAF Unit #1017, equipped with Su-25K/UBK ground attack aircraft and a squadron equipped with MiG-29B/SE/UB fighters of the 55th Air Regiment. Despite their age, these represent some of the most modern and capable aircraft in the KPAF’s inventory.
- Completing the modernization and expansion project will provide improved operating conditions, a safer operating environment, additional parking space for aircraft, greater run-out for landing aircraft, accommodation for more heavily loaded or larger aircraft, and the potential for increased sortie rates.
- Although often overshadowed by the ballistic missile and nuclear programs, the time, resources, and cost of the Sunchon Airbase modernization and expansion project are a clear indication of Kim Jong-un’s effort to improve the operational readiness of the KPAF.
A satellite image of the Sunchon Airbase (순천 비행장) in Pyongan-namdo (South Pyongan Province, 평안남도) acquired on May 1, 2023, provides an opportunity to update our previous report detailing North Korea’s major modernization and expansion project at the facility. Notably, this is the first image of the airbase since the project began in 2021 that shows the presence of aircraft. Ten aircraft are parked on the taxiway leading away from the northern entrance to the base’s underground facility (i.e., hanger). These aircraft consist of:
- eight Su-25K/UBK ground attack aircraft from Unit #1017. All appear to be without visible wingtip, weapons pods, or drop tanks.
- one MiG-29B/SE/UB fighter of the 55th Air Regiment without visible weapons pods or drop tanks.
- one unidentified aircraft. This aircraft is unusual as it measures approximately 13.8 meters long and has a wingspan of approximately 10.4 meters—considerably smaller than the nearby MiG-29.
- the aircraft shares a passing resemblance.
- All of the aircraft are positioned nose-out, indicating that they were pulled out of the underground facility and are painted in the light grey/medium grey camouflage observed on many recently repainted aircraft since at least 2015.
The position of the aircraft on the taxiway and the lack of tire marks on the main runway resulting from landing aircraft touching down strongly suggests that these aircraft were stored in the underground facility during the modernization and expansion project and were only moved into the open sometime between April 16 to April 18, 2023.
The Sunchon Airbase (39.412031, 125.89069) is a major KPAF base subordinate to KPAF headquarters and is reported to be the home of two units of the 1st Air Combat Division—Unit #1017 (an air regiment) equipped with Su-25K/UBK ground attack aircraft and a squadron equipped with MiG-29B/SE/UB fighters of the 55th Air Regiment.1 Despite their age, these represent some of the most modern and capable aircraft in the KPAF’s inventory.
The major modernization and expansion project, which began in April 2021, is now approaching completion. Among the most notable aspects of this project have been the rebuilding and lengthening of the main runway from 2,500-by-50 meters to 2,800-by-50 meters, the rebuilding of most taxiways, the addition of standard runway/taxiway markings and approach light systems, the razing, rebuilding, or expansion of hardstands, and the addition of a new control tower.
The first indication that the modernization and expansion project was being undertaken at the Sunchon Airbase occurred sometime between April 11–14, 2021, when the base’s Su-25K aircraft were redeployed to Kaechon Airbase (39.752859, 125.901374) 38 kilometers to the north and the MiG-29 aircraft redeployed to the Pukchang Airbase (39.504614, 125.964610) 12 kilometers to the northeast.2 Construction work was first observed in imagery five days later on April 19, 2021.
This modernization and expansion project was undertaken as part of a slowly expanding KPAF nationwide reorganization, consolidation, and modernization program that began with Kim Jong-un’s assumption of leadership in 2011. While much of the airbase’s modernization and expansion project is completed, there are likely many smaller items that likely need to be completed before the aircraft return and the base resumes full operational status.
When completed, the modernization and expansion project will provide improved operating conditions, a safer operating environment, additional parking space for aircraft, greater run-out for landing aircraft, accommodation for more heavily loaded or larger aircraft, and the potential for increased sortie rates.
Current Status of Airbase
Moving from north to south of the airbase, the May 1, 2023, satellite image shows the current state of the modernization and expansion project and that it is nearing completion.
At the northern end of the airbase, construction work on the Visual Approach Slope Indicator System (VASIS) for Runway 15 is continuing. Only 11 light positions are visible, which is somewhat unusual as they are normally installed in even numbers of 2, 4, 6, 12, or 16 light units.
The northern end of the airbase shows that construction work has been completed, and standard runway markings have been applied to Runway 15 and a rebuilt taxiway. Since our last report, standard runway lights have been installed along both sides of the main runway, and Precision Approach Path Indicator (PAPI) lights are now present at either end of the main runway. During the construction project, the existing alert hardstand and associated taxiway were razed and replaced by a new operational hardstand approximately 600 meters to the south. A second preexisting taxiway here has not been rebuilt and is not currently connected to the rebuilt taxiway.
A large operational hardstand for 15 aircraft stands with blast walls has been built approximately 600 meters south of the razed alert hardstand at the north end of Runway 15. Visible in the image are the remnants of a razed taxiway and maintenance buildings.
Approximately 1,100 meters south of the new operational hardstand, a smaller preexisting alert hardstand was razed and replaced by a significantly expanded alert hardstand built that consists of 25 aircraft stands with blast walls,3 16 of which have open environmental shelters similar to those constructed at the Kalma International Airport.4
Immediately south of this new alert hardstand are four preexisting hardened aircraft shelters (HAS) that appear to have remained untouched by the modernization and expansion project. These have been supplemented by two revetted structures that likely serve as a ready supply of munitions for alert aircraft using the HAS. Immediately south of this, the preexisting control tower and alert hardstand were razed during the project, and a new control tower was built.
The southern end of the airbase shows that the preexisting alert hardstand that was at the end of the former runway was razed to allow for the expansion of Runway 33 by approximately 300 meters and the construction of a new taxiway. Standard runway markings have been applied to both Runway 33 and the new taxiway. A second preexisting taxiway here has also been rebuilt and marked with standard markings.
At the southern end of the airbase, construction work on the Visual Approach Slope Indicator System (VASIS) for Runway 33 is also continuing. As with the northern installation, only 11 light positions are visible.
On the northeast side of the airbase is a large underground facility (hangar) with three entrances that are connected to the main runway by a series of taxiways—some of which have been rebuilt during the modernization and expansion project. Of the three entrances, those on the west side of the hill mass are typically seen with netting suspended above them, while the third on the north side is often without such netting. The aircraft discussed above are on the taxiway leading from the north entrance of the underground facility.
The airbase headquarters, housing, billeting, messing facilities, etc. are dispersed in the hills to the east of the main runway and have remained essentially unchanged during the modernization and expansion project.
Finally, no precision approach radar or a host of antennae typically present at KPAF airbases have been positively identified.
- As noted in our previous report on the Sunchon Airbase, Unit #1017 is a military unit cover designation (MUCD) for the unit. At present, its official designation is unknown. Unit #1017 is most often identified as being equipped with Su-25K/UBK ground attack aircraft. During previous flight demonstrations at the Sunchon Airbase that include appearances by both Su-25s from Unit #1017 and MiG-29s from the 55th Air Regiment, some reporting conflates the two as being from Unit #1017. The “UB” designation represent the trainer version of the aircraft. Author interview data. ↩
- The Pukchang Airbase is home to the 60th Air Regiment equipped with MiG-29ML/UB fighter aircraft. The Kaechon Airbase is home to the 35th Air Regiment equipped with MiG-19, MiG-15U, and MiG-17U fighters. “U” or “UB” being the trainer version of these aircraft). ↩
- Sometimes identified as an engine run-up hardstand. ↩
- Kalma International Airport was formerly the Wonsan Airbase. ↩