North Korea's antique fighter jets are still keeping the US and South Korea on their toes
- North Korea has a relatively large air force, but its combat aircraft are all decades old.
- Even with an aging fleet, Pyongyang has been able to catch the attention of South Korea and the US.
North Korea's missile program had a record-setting year in 2022, but Pyongyang has been using its aging air force to keep its neighbors on their toes as well.
On October 6, 12 North Korean jets were detected practicing air-to-ground attacks near the DMZ, prompting South Korea to scramble 30 of its fighters. Two days later, North Korea conducted a massive aerial drill reportedly involving as many as 150 aircraft.
On November 4, 80 South Korean fighters were scrambled after 180 North Korean planes were detected on South Korean radar. Finally, on December 26, five drones spent five hours flying in South Korean airspace before returning unharmed to North Korea, with one of the drones briefly penetrating a no-fly zone over South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol's office in Seoul.
The activity and scale is unusual given North Korea's air force is widely regarded as the weakest branch of North Korea's military.
An elderly force
Historically, the Korean People's Army Air and Anti-Air Force, or KPAAF, was large and relatively strong.
Since the end of the Cold War, though, the KPAAF's capabilities have eroded even as it has maintained a relatively large number of planes.
North Korea was able to assemble fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters from kits supplied by the Soviet Union and China in the 1980s and 1990s, but Moscow and Beijing dramatically decreased their support after 1991.
In recent decades, sanctions imposed in response to North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons have prevented it from acquiring new aircraft, spare parts, and jet fuel, and have also stopped it from developing an advanced domestic aerospace industry. Pyongyang can now only build light, single-engine propeller-driven airplanes.
Those limitations, combined with Pyongyang's prioritization of its nuclear, missile, and ground forces, has forced the KPAAF to cannibalize parts and equipment from its aging aircraft, rotate its active aircraft in and out of storage to extend their service lives, and turn to the black market.
North Korea attempted to purchase MiG-21s and spare parts illegally from Mongolia in 2011 and was able to obtain some of the 40 MiG-21s it ordered from a faction of Kazakh officials in 1999 before the government there halted the deliveries.
In 2013, a North Korean ship carrying weapons, including two MiG-21s, hidden in a shipment of sugar from Cuba was seized as it tried to transit the Panama Canal.
Composition and problems
The only thing the KPAAF can really boast about now is its size.
It is the second-largest branch of North Korea's military, with an estimated 110,000 personnel. The force is divided into four air divisions, each responsible for a specific region of the country.
It is also believed to have over 900 combat aircraft, according to the US Defense Intelligence Agency, though other estimates are as low as 500 combat aircraft. Most KPAAF aircraft are extremely outdated, however.
About 400 are believed to be MiG-15s. Another 350 are believed to be MiG-17s, -19s, and -21s. Those four models were introduced by the Soviets in the 1950s and entered service with the KPAAF around the same time.
The KPAAF also operates an estimated 80 Il-28 bombers and 200 An-2 transport planes, both of which first flew in the 1940s. North Korea's, An-2s, which are single-engine propeller biplanes, are mostly used to airdrop special forces, but they have also been seen attacking mock targets with rockets.
The KPAAF's most modern aircraft — the MiG-29s fighters, MiG-23 interceptors, and Su-25 attack aircraft tasked primarily with defending Pyongyang — were acquired in the late 1980s.
Because of the lack of jet fuel and spare parts, the number of aircraft actually in active service is likely to be much smaller. It is estimated that only about 18 of the original 35 MiG-29s are serviceable, for instance.
Airworthiness does not automatically translate to combat-worthiness either. This is especially true given the suspected quality of KPAAF pilots, who the DIA says are restricted to flying just 12 to 25 hours a year. By comparison, US and British pilots get around 180 to 240 flying hours a year.
"Generally speaking, the KPAAF won't have the ability to deploy the entirety of its inventory in a wartime scenario," Ankit Panda, the Stanton Senior Fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Insider.
The KPAAF is not without its strengths, however.
North Korea is keenly aware of the role South Korea's superior air force and sizeable missile arsenal would play in a war, and has invested in an integrated air-defense network while pursuing limited modernization efforts.
In 2017, the KPAAF introduced the KN-06 surface-to-air missile system, which is believed to be similar to Russia's S-300. In 2020, it unveiled a new medium-range surface-to-air missile system similar in appearance to Russia's Tor. In September 2021, North Korea tested a new long-range surface-to-air missile system believed to be similar to Russia's S-400.
The KPAAF also operates a massive amount of anti-aircraft artillery, with the area around Pyongyang having "one of the most dense concentrations of AAA in the world," according to the DIA.
In terms of aircraft modernization, the future for North Korea is likely drones. It has been pursuing drone development and acquisition since the early 1990s and has about 500 drones of 20 types, according to a South Korean lawmaker.
In 2021, Kim Jong Un pledged to develop new reconnaissance drones capable of flying up to 310 miles. Recent satellite images have revealed a possible new advanced model in development. Pyongyang is likely watching the performance of the Iranian-made drones and loitering munitions that Russia is using in Ukraine and may acquire some for itself.
"UAVs are the big modernization focus at the moment," Panda said. "I think the North Koreans, like other resource-constrained militaries, see UAVs as an important asymmetric force multiplier and, in the case of reconnaissance UAVs, an enabler for more effective strike operations for their missile forces."
Considering how much North Korea's air force lags those of South Korea and the US, drones are likely the only real way the KPAAF can still pose a threat. The flight by North Korean drones into South Korea in December — the first such flight in five years — showed what that threat could look like. (South Korea's military failed to shoot down any of the drones, prompting military leaders to publicly apologize.)
"Of all the concerns emanating from North Korea's conventional and nuclear forces, the crewed aircraft of the KPAAF are fairly minor," Panda said. "That said, drones are a growing concern for South Korea and will require new types of investments in short-range air-defense systems."
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