North Korea has a massive air force — here's why it's basically a joke

  • North Korea has a massive air force that outnumbers the South Korean and US jets it’s meant to counter mostly with Russian-made fighters and bombers.
  • North Korea’s jets are old, however, and could be easily jammed by the US and South Korea.
  • Additionally, North Korea hardly has the jet fuel or money to train and maintain good pilots.
  • North Korea’s air force isn’t bad in absolute terms, but relative to the US and South Korea it’s a joke.

North Korea has a massive air force that outnumbers the South Korean and US jets it’s meant to counter mostly with Russian-made fighters and bombers, but in reality the force is basically a joke.

According to a newInternational Institute for Strategic Studies report on North Korea’s conventional military, the air force has 110,000 officers and enlisted personnel taking care of approximately 1,650 aircraft. That force includes about 820 combat aircraft, 30 reconnaissance aircraft, and 330 transport aircraft.

“During wartime, the force likely has the capability to conduct a limited, short-term strategic and tactical bombing offensive and to launch a surprise attack,” IISS assesses.

Because the jets are spread out across a wide swath of the country, North Korea is most likely able to “conduct strike missions against command and-control facilities, air-defence assets, and industrial facilities without rearranging or relocating its aircraft,” the report says.

The IISS says North Korea’s best jets are its MiG-29 fighters, which it probably only has a few dozen of, its 46 MiG-23 fighters, and its roughly 30 Su-25 ground-attack aircraft. “The remaining aircraft are older, and less capable MiG-15s, MiG-17/J-5s, MiG-19/J-6s, MiG-21/J-7 fighters and Il-28/H-5 light bombers,” the report says.

MiG 29 serbiaSrđan Popović via Wikimedia CommonsA MiG-29 of the Serbian Air Force and Air Defence.

But all of those planes are from the 1980s, and IISS says they can’t hang in today’s environment of electronic warfare.

This is something the US would be sure to exploit, as almost all of its jets have jamming capabilities and its aircraft carriers can transport specialty electronic-warfare planes.

Additionally, the US and South Korea’s abilities to monitor North Korean planes via satellite and recon drones severely blunts any surprise attacks they could pull off.

Even worse for North Korea than the age of its planes, however, could be its pilots’ lack of training. Because North Korea relies on China for almost all of its jet fuel, and that item has long been under sanction, it has to preserve the precious little fuel it does have.

This means less flight time for pilots and less time training in the real world, and it almost certainly precludes realistic training against adversarial jets.

A video in 2015 showed North Korean pilots walking around with toy planes in front of Kim Jong Un, who observed their training. Another shot shows the pilots at flight simulators, a tool commonly used by air forces around the world.

For this reason, North Korea relies heavily on building hardened, bomb-resistant ground structures for its jets and using surface-to-air missiles to fight any prospective air wars.

North Korea’s air force actually has modest capability impressive for a country of its size and income, but it simply could not contend with South Korean and US jets.

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