North Korea is forging ahead with modernizing its armed forces to pose an increasingly salient threat to South Korea, Japan, and U.S. assets in the East Asia region. As Pyongyang keeps improving its military, an unmistakable trend emerges: North Korea continues to defy longstanding western projections of imminent military decline.
There is one area, however, where North Korea’s military weaknesses are not at all exaggerated—Pyongyang’s Korean People’s Army Air Force (KPAAF) is a decrepit cavalcade of clunkers with little to no battlefield value, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the KPAAF is its immense size; North Korea’s air force totals around 1,650 units, over 800 of which are combat aircraft. But the KPAAF’s proportions belie rampant qualitative shortcomings. Almost the entire KPAAF roster is composed of 1960’s fighters in various states of technical disrepair, including roughly 100 units each of Chinese-derived MiG-17, MiG-19, and MiG-21 derivatives: namely, the Shenyang F-5, Shenyang J-6, and Chengdu J-7. The F-5 and J-6 were both retired by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Airforce (PLAAF) in the early 1990s, while the J-7 remains in partial service as the modernized J-7E.
Even under the bold assumption that these decades-old fighters remain fully operational despite the prodigious costs associated with maintaining and repairing such a large, archaic fleet, there is reason to believe that the KPAAF lacks the pilot cadre to fly a significant number of them at any given time. An oft-overlooked result of the international sanctions regime arrayed against North Korea is a chronic fuel shortage that makes it difficult to allocate the flying hours necessary to train capable fighter regiments.
Compounding the KPAAF’s problems is the technical reality that these fighters are grossly obsolete in the age of electronic warfare and modern air defense systems. In any kind of pitched aerial battle over Japanese or South Korean airspace, the F-6, J-7, and J-6’s lack of contemporary stealth, targeting, and penetration features makes them little more than fodder for AIM-120 AMRAAM and Patriot Pac-3 missiles. Their only positive battlefield impact could be to soak up interceptor missile fire, but it is not clear that the KPAAF has the capacity to fly enough of these fighters simultaneously to even serve as a meaningful distraction.
The best units in KPAAF’s roster are eighteen MiG-29 aerial superiority fighters and upwards of fifty MiG-29 multirole fighters. Though serviceable in certain patrol and interception contexts, these 1970’s aircraft lack the means to challenge the sophisticated, multilayered air defense networks procured by South Korea and Japan over the past several decades.
As Japan and South Korea proceed with sizable F-35 acquisitions and ambitious indigenously-produced fighter projects, the widening airpower gap between North Korea and its regional opponents has become too steep for Pyongyang to surmount. The KPAAF has stagnated to the point of irreversible obsolescence, and there is no indication that North Korea’s leadership plans on doing anything about it. North Korea’s military-industrial sector has, instead, devoted its modest budget to a handful of projects that they believe will yield the biggest military return on investment: a credible nuclear deterrent, and a submarine force capable of overwhelming South Korean defenses with swarms of modernized short-range missiles.
North Korea is pursuing a military modernization doctrine that largely does not require an air force to threaten North Korea’s East Asian neighbors and guarantee its second-strike capability. As a result, a sweeping decommission program to dismantle most of the KPAAF could yield salvageable materials and significant savings on upkeep for North Korea. There are some signs that Pyongyang has taken steps to retire certain fighters over the past decade, but the insulated nature of the regime makes it difficult to gauge just how wide-ranging these efforts have been.
Mark Episkopos is a frequent contributor to The National Interest and serves as research assistant at the Center for the National Interest. Mark is also a PhD student in History at American University.