The North Korean People’s Air Force hasn’t acquired a new combat aircraft in more than 30 years. Foreign sanctions and the slow collapse of North Korea’s economy mean the air force has little choice but to maintain, for as long as it can, the planes it already has.
How many planes are we talking about? Joseph Dempsey, an analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, scrutinized recent satellite imagery and made an educated guess.
The KPAF can muster at least 75 of its most modern fighters, attacks planes and bombers, Dempsey concluded. Modern, that is, by North Korean standards.
That’s not a lot. Not when the South Korean air force alone possesses no fewer than 500 modern fighters and attack planes—not including combat-capable trainers—and also is acquiring two types of stealth fighters.
Add scores of American warplanes to the South Korean tally and it becomes apparent just how outnumbered and outgunned the KPAF would be during a war across the Demilitarized Zone.
On paper, the North Korean air force owns 572 front-line warplanes. Most date to the 1960s or even the ‘50s, including hundreds of geriatric MiG-17s, MiG-19s and MiG-21s and Chinese-made copies of those Soviet designs.
The latest planes in the inventory aren’t all that late. According to a recent survey by Flight International, the KPAF in theory possesses 56 MiG-23 and 35 MiG-29 fighters, 34 Su-25 attack planes and 80 H-5 bombers, which are Chinese clones of the Soviet Il-28.
Probably none of these planes is younger than 30 years old. And it’s possible that, in the decades since Pyongyang acquired them, many of the MiGs, Sukhois and Harbin bombers have crashed and become unflyable for want of parts or maintenance.
“Publicly available assessments appear to be based upon historical totals of aircraft delivered, with no allowance for attrition,” Dempsey explained. “Given all types have been in service for decades, losses through accident and aircraft damage will inevitably have mounted up, thus reducing inventory numbers.”
Recent airfield closures gave analysts a chance to count North Korea’s active aircraft. Sunchon air base in west-central North Korea, home of Pyongyang’s Su-25s and MiG-29s, has closed for runway repairs. In mid-April, the base’s planes assembled out in the open ahead of relocation to other bases. Commercial satellites snapped photos.
Something similar happened back in mid-February at Uiju air base on the border with China. Uiju hosted around half of the air force’s H-5s until the regime of North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un apparently converted it into an industrial facility. The Il-28s also assembled outdoors as they relocated.
In all, Dempsey counted 12 MiG-29s and 31 Su-25s departing Sunchon and 32 H-5s leaving Uiju. Whereas Flight estimates the KPAF has 35 MiG-29s, IISS believes it has just 18—this despite the possibility, however remote, that Pyonygang has been able to build meaningful numbers of MiG-29s on its own.
If the KPAF has 18 MiG-29s and 12 relocated, that hints that the air force has managed to keep two-thirds of its most modern fighter in flyable condition. If the KPAF has 35 MiG-29s and just a dozen switched bases, it could speak to the air force’s struggle to keep its latest fighters war-ready.
The Su-25 fleet seems to be in better shape. Thirty-two of the 35 attack planes are flyable—a readiness rate that exceeds what even many of the world’s richer air forces can manage.
When a hurricane bore down on Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida in October 2018, the U.S. Air Force was able to fly out just 38 of the 55 F-22 stealth fighters at the base. The other 17, unflyable due to a lack of spares, rode out the storm in hangars. Several suffered damage.
The H-5 fleet, by contrast, appears to be suffering. If, as Dempsey assumes, Uiju hosted 40 or s0 bombers prior to the relocation, the fact that just 17 of the planes departed the base means more than half can’t fly. That perhaps is unsurprising. The H-5, a Chinese copy of a bomber that first flew in 1948, is old.
Yes, the KPAF reportedly has modified the H-5s to carry cruise missiles. Still, the planes are museum pieces. The U.S. Air Force has kept its 1960s-vintage B-52s relevant by constantly updating all of the bombers’ systems. Their sensors. Their defensive gear. And, in coming years, their engines. The North Korean air force apparently has not done the same with its H-6s.
The H-6s could be dwindling. The MiG-29s might be, too. The Su-25s still are going strong, for now.
In truth, none of this would matter a great deal in wartime. In simulations of a war on the Korean Peninsula, the KPAF doesn’t last long. Doubling the MiG-29 force wouldn’t make much difference when the South Korean and U.S. air forces together possess hundreds of the world’s most advanced warplanes.
Which is not to say allied air arms would face no resistance. North Korea maintains overlapping ground-based air-defenses. The weather could complicate allied air operations, too.
Tallying North Korea’s flyable warplanes is tantamount to an extinction countdown. Those planes won’t last forever. And when they’re gone, there might not be any way for Pyongyang to replace them. In that sense, the KPAF has a lot in common with another endangered air force—Ukraine’s.
By Odoh Dominic Chukwuemeka
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