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Cold War North Korean Armor Modern North Korean Armor

M1985 Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Gun

Nation Flag IconNorth Korea (1980s-today)
Self-Propelled anti-aircraft gun – Unknown numbers (mass-produced)

Ever since the creation of the Korean People’s Army as the standing force of the North Korean state in 1948, the army had to deal with the threat of a US-supported South. The Republic of Korea, or South Korea, would typically benefit from air superiority due to the large involvement of the US Air Force on their side. As early as the pre-1950 build-up, some primitive self-propelled anti-aircraft guns could be found in the form of GAZ-AAs trucks armed with 12.7 mm machine guns.

The rise of indigenous North Korean self-propelled anti-aircraft artillery would mostly start in the 1970s though. During this time, due to a large build-up of North Korea’s military industry that was started by the local production or assembly of T-55s and PT-76s, North Korea was starting to diversify its production. It introduced a number of indigenous designs based on whatever Soviet or Chinese technology was available. Though a first self-propelled anti-aircraft gun was found in the form of the M1978, made on the hull of the Tokchon series of self-propelled artillery pieces and mounting two 37 mm Type 65 autocannons of Chinese origins, this was only a fairly primitive vehicle. Somewhat more advanced vehicles would be manufactured in the coming years – the M1985 being the first of a series of vehicles based on the hull of the Soviet ZSU-23-4 Shilka.

North Korea and the ZSUs: a complex and misunderstood relationship

The operation of the Soviet Union’s self-propelled anti-aircraft guns by North Korea – both the ZSU-57-2 and the ZSU-23-4 – is an often misunderstood subject. North Korea does not actually appear to have operated any of the two types in massive numbers. There is no tangible evidence of North Korea having even operated the ZSU-57-2 at all. Though a rumor states North Korea received 250 ZSU-57-2 turrets, which it mounted on Chinese Type 59 hulls, there have never been any solid sources backing such a claim up, nor photographic evidence, and this is likely a myth. The ZSU-57-2 was certainly known by North Korean engineers, and it appears to have inspired the M1985 self-propelled anti-aircraft guns in some ways, but it may have never set track on the Korean peninsula.

North Korea is, however, known to have received a small number of ZSU-23-4 Shilkas from the Soviet Union in the early 1970s. There exists some very limited photographic evidence of these Shilkas, and only a small number were likely received. They did, however, have a deep influence on the development of North Korea’s own self-propelled anti-aircraft guns.

North Korean officials in front of two self-propeleld anti-aircraft gun; to the left a 30mm-armed M1989, and to the right one of the rare North Korean ZSU-23-4s Shilkas. Source: THE ARMED FORCES OF NORTH KOREA, On The Path Of Songun

The M1985: ZSU-57-2’s guns on a Shilka’s legs.

As the name it was given by the US Department of Defence implies, the M1985 self-propelled anti-aircraft gun was first observed in 1985. The actual date of its origin is unknown. We know that a prototype of the more advanced M1989 self-propelled anti-aircraft gun was spotted as early as 1983, and the M1985 likely predates this more advanced system. It may even have been part of the several vehicle models introduced in the late 1970s/early 80s alongside the M1981 Shin’Heung and the Chonma-Ho. The M1985, using mostly off-the-shelf parts from Soviet designs, likely did not have a particularly long development cycle.

The vehicle could be very shortly described as mounting the ZSU-57-2’s armament of two S-68A 57 mm autocannons on a chassis copied from the GMZ-575 found on the ZSU-23-4.

North Korea’s version of the GMZ-575 chassis

The hull of the M1985 appears to be a visually almost identical copy of the ZSU-23-4’s GMZ-575 tracked chassis. Only a few differences may be seen. The North Korean model appears to have different side stowage, with four stowage hatches to be found instead of three on the Shilka. The glacis may be angled a few degrees further back. The M1985 also lacks the three towing hooks found on the ZSU-23-4’s lower front plate. The M1985 also appears to use different tracks, with a central pin and two side pads.

Another view of M1985 in the same 2012 parade as earlier. The hull is very similar, but not exactly identical, to the PT-76-based GMZ-575. Source: m.blog.naver

There is no way to know if the North Korean version of the GMZ-575 retains the propulsive elements of the Shilka or instead moved to use another engine. The GMZ-575 chassis was originally based on the PT-76 light tank, which North Korea is thought to have assembled at the Sinhung tank plant in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Therefore, it is likely that the chassis was relatively easy to start to manufacture. North Korea operates a number of other vehicles in a similar weight range, notably the variety of vehicles based on the 323 armored personnel carrier and the M1981 light tank. It is not impossible to think the North Koreans may have tried to introduce some part commonality between their fleet, but this is pretty much just conjecture.

If the North Korean version is believed to have similar capacities to the original GMZ-575, it likely means the M1985 should be able to reach a maximum speed of about 50 km/h, and overall be somewhat less mobile than main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles due to a lower power-to-weight ratio.

Firepower: A ZSU-57-2 that cannot aim its gun low enough

On this GMZ-575-based hull, the North Korean mounted what appears to be essentially a new, but quite simple turret. It has a very simple rectangular shape when looked at from the side, but there are two slightly angled front-sides plates. The turret sides appear separated into a lower and upper section; the upper one may perhaps be folded down in some way, though the use of such a feature is somewhat questionable. The armor protection of the turret, as the hull, is likely very low – probably only able to resist rifle-caliber projectiles at most.

A row of three M1985s on Kim-Il Sung square during a parade. The simple shape of the turret, but also its division between a lower and upper section, may be seen here. Source: reddit

The turret is open-topped, and features as its main armament a local version of the dual 57 mm S-68A gun system found on the ZSU-57-2. Whether or not any significant modifications were applied to these guns is unknown. If they were kept identical to the original Soviet guns, the system could fire up to 240 rounds a minute. This rate of fire is hampered by the use of hand-fed five-round clips, requiring very frequent reloads. The shells in themselves are very powerful for an anti-aircraft gun. The projectiles weigh 2.8 kg and contain a 1.2 kg charge of nitrocellulose powder for the High Explosive shells, while the Armor Piercing shells offer some very decent penetration capacities of up to 110 mm or armor at 500 m – enough to deal with the vast majority of armored vehicles lighter than main battle tanks. These guns offer a strong recoil, which may be felt more strongly on the lighter GMZ-575-based hull than on the original ZSU-57-2. As on the ZSU-57-2, the operation of these guns is likely managed by four men, a gunner, two loaders and a sight adjuster. This would increase to five if the commander is included.

While powerful in theory, the operation of these guns is very much primitive even by the standards of the 1980s, let alone modern ones. With only optical sights, they are woefully outdated against modern planes, and while they may be effective against helicopters, those may typically identify the target, process it and send a missile on the way of an M1985 way before it can accurately estimate the range and start to fire. Against armored vehicles, the M1985 once again faces an issue, though a much simpler one. Simply put, the turret found on the M1985 does not appear to allow for anything but positive elevation. When looking at the turret, it does not appear the guns have enough space to target anything below their level. In other words, they would be unable to find an angle to fire against ground targets in the vast majority of scenarios. This appears to be a massive oversight. Considering whatever little views we have of the M1985, perhaps a way the vehicle could target ground targets – for example by lowering the turret’s side panels – may exist. It has, however, never been seen. The guns also feature a travel lock going up from the front of the hull.

Crewmen of an M1985 saluting from the open turret during a parade, with a flag of the Korean Worker’s Party in the forefront. Source: m.blog.naver

Operation by the Korean People’s Army

The M1985 has been in service of the Korean People’s Army at least since the early 1980s, but, as almost systematically with North Korean armor, details of its service use are pretty much non-existent. In comparison to previous types, such as the M1978 Tokchon-based self-propelled anti-aircraft gun or the M1983/M1984, which appear to be little more than a ZPU-4 quadruple 14.5 mm machine gun mounted on a 323 hull, the M1985 brings somewhat of an improvement, as a more mature self-propelled anti-aircraft design. However, this does not prevent it from being entirely obsolete in the era it was fielded in. Mounting an armament designed for an era in which it would face early jet fighters and primitive helicopters, it would be fielded at a point in which jet fighters could fly well past Mach 2, and helicopters, such as later versions of the AH-1 Cobra, or soon the new AH-64 Apache, with advanced targeting systems, could likely make short work of a self-propelled anti-aircraft guns that has nothing but optical sights and old, powerful but low rate-of-fire guns.

The production numbers of the M1985 are unknown. The vehicle was spotted in a number of North Korean parades, including some recent ones, but the introduction of the much more advanced M1989 self-propelled anti-aircraft gun, which seemingly uses the same chassis as the M1985 but features two radar-guided 30 mm guns, may mean that the M1985 only had a fairly short-lived production run. Nonetheless, the type remains in North Korean service today. The country has a policy of retaining armored vehicles in service way past the point of obsolescence (largely to outfit the very large army it maintains to defend itself, which could not be provided with enough material if only modern weaponry was retained) so it is not surprising to find a system with capacities similar to another one, which had its prime in the late 1950s, still be in main line service today.

Rows of M1985 with their guns elevated on parade. Though, in this way, the vehicle looks impressive, it is hopelessly outdated for modern warfare. Source: m.blog.naver

Conclusion – A stepping stone to more advanced self-propelled anti-aircraft gun designs

The M1985 could hardly be considered a decent self-propelled anti-aircraft gun. With an obsolete weapon system – by the late 1970s or early 1980s, while North Korea was introducing the M1985, Eastern Bloc countries were phasing out the ZSU-57-2 almost entirely – and no form of modern fire control, its firepower against air targets is very limited. Also, with seemingly no way of operating decently against ground targets either, the vehicle may have some very limited use overall.

Nonetheless, it remains an important stepping stone in North Korea’s path towards producing a modern self-propelled anti-aircraft gun. With the M1985, North Korea introduced its own version of the GMZ-575 chassis, which would then be used for the M1989 – mating this chassis with a Shilka-inspired turret armed with twin 30 mm guns based on the naval AK-230, with a targeting radar. An even more advanced vehicle featuring the same hull was mentioned, but with a turret armed with a 30 mm rotary cannon, once again based on a naval gun (the AK-630), as well as side-mounted man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS), with both a long-range target acquisition and short-range tracking radar. No photos of this seemingly quite advanced vehicle, designated M1994 by the US Department of Defence, appear to be publicly available.

A close view of an M1989, likely from the same 2012 parade as earlier photos. The vehicle uses the same hull as the M1985, but its turret mounts an armament much more suited to fight against modern anti-air threats. Source: m.blog.naver
Illustration of the M1985, created by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet and funded by our Patreon campaign

M1985 specifications

Suspension Torsion bars
Maximum speed (road) ~ 50 km/h
Crew Likely 6 (driver, commander, gunner, two loaders, sight adjustor)
Armament Locally-manufactured version of the 57mm S-68A
Rate of fire 240 rounds per minute maximum
Armor Very light (likely no more than the ZSU-23-4, aka 15mm maximum)

Sources

THE ARMED FORCES OF NORTH KOREA, On The Path Of Songun, Stijn Mitzer, Joost Oliemans
Oryx Blog – North Korean vehicles
Self-propelled anti-aircraft guns of the Soviet Union, Mike Guardia, Osprey Publishing

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