Key point: North Korean soldiers are devoted to the regime's survival.
North Korea’s Korean People's Army Air Force (KPAAF)—referred to as the Air and Anti-Air Force Command in South Korean documents—is not in the top ranks of the world’s air forces.
However, the North Korean forces are fanatically devoted to Kim Jong-Un and the Kim regime—which more resembles a Confucian monarchy with Stalinist stylings than Soviet-style communism. The regime’s survival is their survival, and thus the so-called Korean People’s Army is a dedicated to their supreme leader and is likely to put up a fanatical defense in the event of a renewed war.
Even the antiquated junk that the KPAAF possesses can be used to good effect by a fanatically determined enemy.
Among the most antiquated and obsolete aircraft in the North Korean air force is the Shenyang J-5, a Chinese copy of the 1950s-era Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-17 Fresco. North Korea is thought to possess roughly 106 of the antiquated fighters. Another antique fighter in the North Korean inventory is the Shenyang J-6, a Chinese derivative of the Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-19 Farmer. The North Koreans have roughly 97 of the obsolete supersonic fighters.
Both the J-5 and the J-6 are hopelessly obsolete, and if anything, during regular combat operations would simply be missile sponges for American and South Korean fighters and surface-to-air missile batteries. In fact, that is perhaps not a bad mission for these aircraft—surface-to-air missiles and weapons such as the AIM-120 AMRAAM are expensive and inventories are relatively limited. Shooting them down would soak up vital inventories of interceptor missiles.
If for example, if war were to break out and a North Korean J-5 were to cross into South Korean airspace in an attempt to attack a ground target, allied force would shoot it down. But even a single Patriot PAC-3 missile costs more than $3 million. Moreover, interceptor missiles are usually salvoed in pairs during an operational launch. Thus while the North Korea loses an antique J-5, the United States would have expended $6 million and used up a portion of its missile inventory that might have been better utilized to defend against a more important threat such as a ballistic missile. Even an air-to-air missile shot using an AMRAAM would cost well over a million dollars—especially if it was a late model AIM-120D.
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However, in the event of a war, the United States and South Korea couldn’t simply avoid engaging such an aerial target—especially if it was a civilian installation or some sort vital military asset. Moreover, against an enemy like North Korea, there is no way for the defender to know that such an attacking aircraft is not carrying some sort of chemical or biological weapon—in which case, even shooting the aircraft down is problematic.
There is also the outside chance that the North Korean forces are as fanatically as the Imperial Japanese were during World War II. As noted earlier, North Korea less resembles an Eastern European Communist state than it does an Asian monarchy in many ways. As the Japanese demonstrated during the Second World War, there is no better weapons guidance system than a kamikaze pilot. Indeed, while J-5 and J-6 are basically useless as fighters, they would be great cruise missiles loaded up with bombs on a one-way trip. If even only a few got through to their targets, it might be worth it for a regime that knows that it is about to be destroyed.
This first appeared in October 2017.