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North Korea’s Outdated Air Force

A silent observer looking around. At times he must protect his identity with avatars and weird sounding names.

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Make no mistake about it, North Korea remains a serious threat these days. It’s true that as a nation, the North is a total mess. The economy isn’t doing well, and the general population is impoverished, despite the lavish lifestyle of their Great Leader. And this is a nation where silly things could kill you. Imagine getting dragged into death row after streaming episodes from Netflix.

Yet, communist North Korea still boasts a sizeable army, and only recently, Kim Jong Un revealed his plans to pursue the modernization of his armed forces. Asymmetric warfare is how the North plans to engage the more superior South Korea and U.S. And to add to the worries, North Korea just got hold of nuclear armaments, and the means to deliver them. It’s no secret that North Korea is into a nuclear ballistics program. And the notion of a tyrant being served by fanatical soldiers armed with a nuclear arsenal is the last thing the neighboring countries want. And they have a good reason to feel threatened.

But Kim Jong-un's pursuit of ballistic missile programs also sacrificed an important element of his armed forces. Observers noted that in terms of air power, the North had gone the way of the dinosaurs.

Kim, inspecting the air assets.

Kim, inspecting the air assets.

The North Korean Air Force

To the uninitiated, the Korean People's Army Air and Anti-Air Force (KPAAF) is a frightening sight to behold. For one thing, it’s vast. In the Korean People’s Army, the air force is the second largest, with 110,000 personnel. And an air force is nothing without its hardware. It keeps squadrons of aircraft, numbering 1,650.

The primary task of the North Korean air force is to defend Great Leader’s air space. I became a military branch in November 1948. It uses old Soviet-style air tactics, and knowledge gained during the Korean war (the UN bombings). And after the Korean War, the air force was deployed to fight in wars overseas, like in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and during the Yom Kippur War.

We could say that the North Korean Air force wasn’t a pushover back then. But one might wonder how it is currently doing.

The bad news for most nations is that North Korea's air force is still vast air. The good news is, it is one of the most outdated air forces in the world. The North’s air force is stuck in the early years of the Cold War. Much of the aircraft they operate consist of ancient and obsolete hardware.

The North Korean MiG-19

The North Korean MiG-19

The Aircraft of North Korea

While most air forces today gave their all to acquire advanced air superiority fighters (now with stealth features), North Korea operates 1960-era warplanes.

We will first start with one of their museum pieces, the MiG-17. This plane looks like it belongs in the history books, and it does. A stubby fighter with swept wings and gaping air intake at the front, the MiG-17 became obsolete decades ago. And although it was a proven subsonic fighter in the Vietnam War, good luck using this living fossil against 4th- and 5th-Gen planes.

In addition, North Korea also operates MiG-19s, MiG-21s and MiG-23s. Among its squadron of aged fighters, MiG-21 is the most numerous. It also possesses Chinese-derived Soviet fighters (Shenyang F-5, Shenyang J-6, and Chengdu J-7).

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But ancient museum pieces aren’t North Korea's only planes.

Among the sea of aging fighters are some more modern MiG-29s; 35 of them. The warplanes are complemented by various air defense and precision guided munition systems (Kh-25 and Kh-29).

Pilots posing with their Great Leader.

Pilots posing with their Great Leader.

Pilot Problems

With fanaticism running high in the armed force, we might see sufficient pilots or personnel with enough training to fight for their Great Leader. But again, that’s not the case.

North Korean Pilots were last seen in battle decades ago. During peace time, they should be conducting training and building up flying hours to hone their skills. The flying hours of a KPAF pilot are hard to gage, but estimates suggest that flying hours are very low, only 15 to 35 hours each year. In contrast, a NATO pilot flies for 150 hours a year.

One might wonder why, but the aging equipment provides an answer. With antiquated planes that could break down at any moment, and with spare parts being scarce, the North just can’t risk pushing their equipment. Hence, flying hours are minimized to save their aging fleet. Then there is the question if these aged jets are even airworthy.

Lack of modern trainers also limits the time one could train pilots, while sanctions create fuel shortages in the North. It’s possible that Pyongyang is maintaining a squad of elite pilots with more flying hours to staff the more modern MiG-29s. But fuel problems and poor economy might be affecting the training of these pilots as well. The North must also address the possibility that a pilot will defect.

South Korean F-35.

South Korean F-35.

Cannot Win an Aerial Battle

Obviously, sending inexperienced and poorly trained pilots flying obsolete jets to fight other Asian nations is a bad idea. In fact, some say that the reason why Pyongyang is so obsessed with long-range missile technology is because there is no way for them to fix their air force. A squadron of early Cold War era jets is not something you want to send against the modern F-16, which the South Korean Air force keeps in their hangar. Worse news for the North, South Korea also possesses the F-15E, the most feared and capable 4th generation fighter ever fielded. And only recently, it got hold of advanced F-35 stealth fighters, all manned by able pilots.

Then there are other nations that the North needs to worry about, like Japan, with air force far more capable than them.

Overall, it’s really hard to predict what North Korea is planning to do with its troubled air force. In the event of war, some predict that the North will use its planes as cheap disposable weapons that might offer distractions. Or, that these planes will carry biological or chemical weapons. And the fanatical pilots might choose to do a World War II type of sacrifice. They will stage Kamikaze type suicide missions with their planes. Or the North might be pursuing an armed forces strategy with little reliance on air power.

References

1.Episkopos, Mark (17 December 2021). "North Korea's Air Force Is a Total Disaster." National Interest.

2. Edwards, Paul M. (2010). "Korean People's Air Force (KPAF)". Historical Dictionary of the Korean War (2nd ed.). Lanham: Scarecrow Press. p. 151.

3. Mizokami, Kyle (19 July 2021). "North Korea's Antiquated Air Force Can Still Put Up a Fight." National Interest.

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