November 8, 2022 | 1:06 p.m
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea on Tuesday described its record-breaking blitz of missile launches over the past week as a “just countermeasure” to the largest-ever US-South Korea air drill.
Pyongyang has long condemned joint Seoul-Washington military drills, calling them rehearsals for an invasion — but it appeared particularly sensitive to air drills.
That’s because North Korea’s air force is the weakest link in its military, experts say.
Here’s a look at the service officially known as the Korean People’s Army (KPA) Airborne and Anti-Aircraft Forces:
How many planes does it have?
The KPA Air Force has more than 900 fighter jets, 300 transport planes and 300 helicopters, according to an assessment released last year by the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency.
But most of its fighters and bombers are either obsolete or nearly obsolete, having been acquired mainly by the Soviet Union and China decades ago.
Even the most powerful jets in its fleet, the Soviet-designed MiG-29s, were procured in the late 1980s.
The “on paper” estimates “do not represent the smaller ‘active’ fleet, with an unknown proportion in long-term storage or withdrawn, which is unlikely to ever fly again,” said Joseph Dempsey, a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). , told AFP.
North Korea is believed to be rotating its “aging to obsolete” fleet in and out of storage “to keep it operational but also to manage lifespan,” he added.
What about its pilots?
North Korea “does not have the capacity to pay for enough fuel, cover maintenance costs, or adequately train its pilots,” according to a 2020 IISS report.
Without enough fuel, and therefore enough flight time, pilots won’t be able to learn or even maintain combat readiness, analysts say.
North Korean fighter pilots only get in the air for 15-25 hours each year, the DIA estimates.
That’s far less than the reported average for the US and South Korean air forces.
North Korea’s air force is so far behind that it is “simply incomparable” to other countries, North Korean studies scholar Ahn Chan-il told AFP.
“It is no exaggeration to say that the Northern Air Force is an ‘air force on the ground’ that is almost never properly trained.”
How did it get so weak?
According to a 2013 report by the Seoul Institute of Military History, North Korea boasted the South’s “twice the air power” in the 1970s.
The then powerful North Korean Air Force sent aid to Hanoi during the Vietnam War and to Syria and Egypt during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, sources said.
But the demise of the Soviet Union – a crucial source of financial and military support – combined with the deterioration of its own economy left North Korea deeply impoverished in the 1990s.
“Russia eventually (1991) established diplomatic ties with Seoul, and partly because of this, Moscow decided not to give the North the kind of military support that the Soviets used to offer,” Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean army general, told AFP .
Pyongyang has also been hit by crippling sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile programs, making it even harder to find the resources to build and maintain modern conventional armed forces.
“North Korea eventually decided to focus fully on developing its nuclear program instead,” Chun told AFP.
This is a “strategic” decision by Pyongyang, added Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
“The best card for North Korea to deal with the world is nuclear weapons.”
How does it compare to US, South Korean air forces?
In the unlikely event of a dogfight with either South Korea or the United States, the North Korean air force would be “severely overwhelmed,” said Daniel Pinkston, a lecturer at Seoul’s Troy University.
“In an intense conflict involving combined and joint South Korean and US forces…North Korea’s air power and air defenses would be dismantled very quickly.”
The difference in resources and technology took center stage last week during joint US-South Korean air exercises called Vigilant Storm, which involved some of the world’s most advanced aircraft.
Unlike North Korea’s Soviet-era jets, US and South Korean pilots flew high-tech stealth F-35 fighters, long-range B-1B heavy bombers, electronic warfare aircraft and tankers for in-flight refueling.
Last week, many of North Korea’s missile launches were exercises simulating the destruction of enemy air bases.
“North Korea considers it important to attack and neutralize air bases first because their air force is weak,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a researcher at the Sejong Institute.