By Bijan Razzaghi
North Korea’s Air Force has been largely overshadowed by the strategic Missile Force as North Korean forces have been primarily focusing on using tactical and strategic ballistic missiles instead of air power. Despite this North Korea’s Air Force operates around 800 Combat types, 300 transport types and 300 helicopters. Despite the large number of aircraft North Korea’s combat types are mostly outdated. The North Korean fleet includes F-5s (Mig-17s), F-6s (Mig-19s), F-7s, Mig-21s, Mig-29s, Su-25s, Su-7s A-5s and IL-28ss. 50% of the aircraft are believed to be kept flyable at any given time.
For air defense and air superiority North Korea relies on its Mig-29s, Mig-23s, and F-7s. The Mig-29s are believed to be the S model as witnessed by a US Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft in 2003. The aircraft is believed to be capable of carrying the maneuverable AA-11 Archer infrared air to air missile. The 40 Mig -29 s North Korea has are effective at close range where they can use their energy and maneuverability to counter western aircraft. The Mig-29 has a thrust to weight ratio of 1.09 and a g limit of 9 making it North Korea’s most maneuverable aircraft. The Mig-23 which North Korea is believed to have 105 are capable of engaging targets at longer ranges with the AA-10 Alamo radar guided missile. Mig -23s have a thrust to weight ratio of 0.88 and a g limit of 8.5. Mig-23s are primarily used for air defense. F-7s are North Korea’s multi role fighter delivered by China in the 1980s and 90s the F-7 can deploy unguided bombs and rockets and can deploy short range air to air missiles such as the AA-2 Atoll. These three types would be used for any North Korean attempt to defend its airspace if the SAM belt were to go down. These aircraft will not be able to match US Air Force F-22s, F-35s, F-16s or South Korean F-15Ks.
For air to ground operations North Korea has been dependent on the SU-25 Frogfoot attack aircraft, the Chinese built A-5 and a handful of SU-17s, F-7s can also be tasked for ground attack operations as well. The SU-25 can deploy the KH-25 guided air to ground missile which can be effective against tanks. The aircraft listed above are also capable of deploying unguided bombs and rockets. This only gives North Korea’s air force a limited attack capability and only capable of conducting missions such as close air support and local defense from ground forces. The IL-28 is North Korea’s only long range bomber. The Il-28 has a range of up to 1,176 miles and can deploy unguided bombs. There has been speculation that the IL-28 conducted a missile test using the KH-35 anti ship missile in the Yellow Sea. If North Korea has this capability the obsolete 50s era aircraft can once again pose a threat to allied naval vessels.
North Korea also operates MI-24 Hind attack helicopters, MI-8 transports and MD-500 light multi role helicopters. North Korean forces use these attack helicopters primarily to support ground troops. There is concern that North Korean Special forces can use their light MD-500s to insert Special Forces around the DMZ undetected.
Although North Korea has a significant number of aircraft most of them are outdated and lack the range, sensors or weapon systems to effectively counter US and South Korean Forces. The North Korean Air Force is a minor speed bump compared to its larger air defense network and ballistic missile arsenal. North Korea attempted in 2015 to obtain SU-35s from Russia but Russia denied, if this had gone through it would’ve been a significant modernization for North Korea’s Air Force.