Main Battle Tank (MBT)
The North Korean-originated Chonma-ho Main Battle Tank has its roots in the Soviet-era T-62 MBT line.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
At present, the Chonma-ho (or "Sky Horse" or "Pegasus") represents one of the more numerous and modern of all the North Korean Army tank offerings to date, numbering 1,250 examples or more. Design of the Chonma-ho began as early as the 1970s by the Second Machine Industry Bureau with an initial order placed in 1976. Production (also handled by SMIB) formally began in 1980 and, through 1989, some 470 units were delivered to the North Korean Army. At its core, the tank is a modified form of the original Soviet-era T-62 series main battle tank. As with most indigenous North Korean projects, the Chonma-ho was developed in secrecy and has made little in the way of public appearances throughout her operational tenure (her last public appearance was on parade in 1992). Regardless, she makes up a lethal component of the North Korean Army today, stressing the core components of mobility and strength through numbers reminiscent of Soviet Cold War armored doctrine.
The Soviet T-62 Main Battle Tank appeared as the next evolution of the T-55 series. The T-62 entered service with the Red Army in mid-1961 and went on to see total production of more than 22,700 units in factories across the Soviet Union and in Czechoslovakia. North Korea, a communist ally, joined in production of the T-62 in an effort to upgrade its armored components after the close of the Korean War (1950-1953). During this period, North Korean factories gained valuable experience in the process of producing front line main battle tanks. The T-62 itself was an upgunned form of the T-55, replacing the latter's 100mm main gun with an armament of 115mm. Armor protection was also improved.
The Chonma-ho became an indigenous main battle tank program enacted by North Korean authorities to bridge the gap between their armored forces and that of the South Koreans and American Army. The South Koreans developed and ultimately fielded the capable K1 series main battle tanks while the American local contingent fielded their impressive M1 Abrams. The Chonma-ho program was similar in scope to other indigenous modernization attempts by North Korea spurred along by the general feeling that her former global allies had left her to fend for herself in the changing world. Communism had died in the "new" Russia while poor economic times soon followed and China became increasingly concerned about self economic well-being. Upon inception, the Chonma-ho was quick to replace (at least on paper) the World War 2-era T-34, Soviet-era T-62 and Chinese Type 59 tanks then in service with the North Korean Army. However, it remains to be seen as to just how "modern" a system the Chonma-ho really is in actual combat.
Design of the Chonma-ho followed conventional tank wisdom and owed much to her Soviet origins. The turret was set ahead of amidships and in front of the engine compartment. The crew managed their positions in the forward and central portions of the armored hull. Like the T-62, the Chonma-ho maintained a low silhouette profile making for a more difficult target to address at any angle. The front glacis plate was well sloped and relatively flat while the turret sat atop the central hull and appeared as an upside down "frying pan" with her rounded facings promoting better ballistics protection. The barrel was set low on the turret front and mounted a noticeable fume extractor passed the midway point. A searchlight was mounted near the gun mantlet and a large caliber anti-aircraft gun was fitted at the commander's cupola. There was a single track system to each hull side made up of five well-spaced road wheels. The track idler was mounted at the forward end of the hull while the drive sprocket held a position at the rear near the engine. Side skirt armor was standard practice production Chonma-hos and a cylindrical external fuel tank could be fitted along structural support arms at the rear edge of the hull for improved operational ranges.
The Chonma-ho weighed in at reported 40 tons and featured a hull length of 6.63 meters with an overall height to the turret top of 3.52 meters. Standard operating crew consisted of four personnel made up of the driver, tank commander, gunner and loader. Protection consisted of "spaced" armor across all facings and Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) was found on later production models, particularly along the turret sides. The turret construction itself was of cast armor. Power was derived from a diesel engine fitted to a rear compartment for maximum survivability. Output was rated around 750 horsepower allowing for speeds of up to 50kmh with an operational range of 450km. The suspension system was of the torsion-bar variety allowing for capable cross-country performance. Primary armament centered around the standard 115mm 2A20 series smoothbore main gun though the tank series has since been upgraded with the more potent 125mm 2A46 series smoothbore in later models. Secondary armament was made up of a 14.5mm KPV anti-aircraft heavy machine gun complemented by a 7.62mm PKT coaxial anti-infantry machine gun. Smoke grenade dischargers were eventually added to the production series to the turret sides.
Up to five different forms of the Chonma-ho are believed to have existed, either based on a Syrain T-62 development or following closely to a Soviet T-62D. Internal upgrade programs have driven the Chonma-ho further away from its foreign roots making for a decidedly North Korean end-product. As such, basic designations were applied to signify varying degrees of changes from model to model. This included the marks of Chonma-ho I (Ga), Chonma-ho II (Na), Chonma-ho III (Da), Chonma-ho IV (Ra) and Chonma-ho V (Ma). The Chonma-ho I was the copied T-62 while the Chonma-ho II covered imported T-62s sporting a laser rangefinder above the gun mantlet. The Chonma-ho III was thought to include improved armor for the hull and turret as well as a newly-designed thermal shroud for the main gun. The Chonma-ho IV and V models are thought to be the latest incarnations of the Chonma-ho series, differentiated by ERA blocks on the turret sides in the IV variant (as well as additional rear stowage) and side turret-mounted smoke grenade dischargers, a new engine, ERA blocks, a 125mm main gun and nightvision capability in the V variant. Beyond these direct variants, the chassis of the Chonma-ho has also been used in the production of an Armored Recovery Vehicle (ARV) version as well as a command vehicle sporting a faux main gun and additional communications equipment. The "Juche-Po" is a self-propelled gun utilizing the chassis of the Chonma-ho and a variety of large caliber main guns (as large as 152mm) in rounded enclosed turret fittings. Since the North Korean Army places a great deal of value on artillery systems in their inventory, the development of Juche-Po is not wholly unexpected.
As with other North Korean indigenous programs, little is known about the origins of the critical components and parts needed to manufacture such a weapon system as the Chonma-ho. Some key elements are thought to be imported to save valuable development and production time with sources of origin possibly being Russia, Slovakia or Syria. The rest is assumed to be indigenous for North Korea does maintain some manufacturing capabilities and past expertise in their years of operating (and producing) Soviet equipment.
Iran is the only other known operator of the Chonma-ho, ordering 150 examples in 1981. These were delivered by North Korea beginning in 1982 with the deal completing in 1985.