This spring, several squadrons from the North Korean People’s Air Force moved to. PDF units that had been hidden for so long were forced to come out in the open by the relocations.
Commercial imaging satellites captured dozens of MiG-29 fighters, Su-25 bombers, and H-5 bombers flying out of Sunchon, Uiju airbases. This gave Western analysts an uncommon opportunity to evaluate the KPAF’s force structure.
Joseph Dempsey (an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London) made one count that seemed to show that North Korea has maintained its inventory, despite not buying new warplanes for three decades.
The KPAF is, by all accounts, a collection of museum pieces. These obsolete, but still functional warplanes would not last long in confrontation with larger and more modern South Korean and U.S. aircraft.
This raises the question: If the KPAF cannot survive a confrontation against rival air forces, then what is it for?
Joost Oliemans, a specialist on the North Korean military, stated that the KPAF is mostly a battlefield-support force. In wartime, its 570 aircraft would drop bombs to support North Korean armored divisions as they rolled south through the mountains along the Demilitarized zone. Oliemans stated that many North Korean aircraft were equipped with hardpoints that allow them to carry more iron bombs.
Expect precision. Expect high casualties. The latest radar jammers and modern self-protection systems are not available to North Korean aircraft. They would fly over enemy air defenses, and be surrounded by scores or hundreds of enemy stealth fighters, including F-22s, F-35s, and F-35s from the USA and South Korea, and soon KF-21s.
The KPAF could end up being a one-use force in a conflict on the peninsula. It can generate ground-support sorties for a few days before it is rendered ineffective by attrition. What then?
The kaput North Korean air force has been defeated, but the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is still able to fight the combined air forces of South Korea as well as the United States. Indirectly. Oliemans stated that the idea was to take up the slack using long-range artillery. The DPRK might not be able to face its enemy in the skies but it can still deny him access to his airfields and destroy much of its ground air force.”
Oliemans said that in a normal scenario this would require the use of the many precision-guided, but potentially vulnerable to GPS jamming–systems it had developed in the past two decades.
This is the ideal scenario for all parties. If North Korea loses its old air force, it could resort to weapons of mass destruction. “Realistically, we might expect a powerful mix of chemical- and biological weapons to serve as an area-denial weapon.”
Oliemans lamented that WMDs could elicit a similar response from the U.S. “But, then again, nobody has any misconceptions regarding the most likely outcome to a conflict with North.”
Mass destruction. Numerous deaths. Most likely, this will lead to the near-death of all the brave, but doomed, pilots of North Korea’s geriatric warplanes.