North Korea has nearly completed a hovercraft base in Koampo, Hwanghae Province, only some 50 km from South Korea's northwesternmost islands. The North is expected to put it into full operation next month.
A South Korean government source said Sunday the large base in Koampo is "near completion." "We found out that the North built about 60 hangar-like berths where hovercraft and stealth air-cushion warships can be kept safely," he added.
South Korean and U.S. intelligence agencies believe the North will begin deploying the ships at the base next month. The berths are reportedly sturdy reinforced concrete structures that look like fighter plane hangars so they can protect the boats from South Korean and U.S. bombardment.
The North has about 130 hovercraft, and the new base can accommodate about half. So far the North's main hovercraft base on the west coast is more than 300 km from South Korea's northwesternmost islands.
It would therefore take North Korean commandos four hours to launch an attack on the islands. But once the Koampo base is in operation, it will take a mere 30 to 40 minutes. That means they could land on the islands before South Korean attack aircraft or helicopters that would be scrambled from their inland bases.
The North's hovercraft can travel on mudflats along the west coast at a speed of 74-96 km/h, carrying a platoon of 30 to 50 personnel. Sixty of them could therefore carry a force of up to 3,000 commandos for a surprise attack on the islands.
In response, the South Korean military plans to deploy several 500MD attack helicopters armed with rockets and machine guns on the islands in the near future, first of all. And since the choppers have difficulty maneuvering at night or in bad weather, the Air Force's KA-1 light attack aircraft and the Army's AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters will also be deployed to deter the North Korean hovercraft. The military also plans to buy 36 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters.