The North Korean Air Force is its weakest link in the balance of power | news
North Korea on Tuesday described a series of record-breaking weapons tests it conducted last week as a “fair countermeasure” in light of the largest joint Washington-Seoul air exercise.
Western and anti-Pyongyang experts say the latter is particularly sensitive to such aerial exercises because its air force is the weakest link in its military.
North Korea’s air force has 900 fighter jets, 300 cargo planes and 300 helicopters, according to the latest 2021 US Defense Intelligence estimate.
But most of the fighters and bombers that Pyongyang acquired decades ago, mostly from the Soviets and China, are obsolete or soon to be decommissioned.
Even the most advanced MiG-29 fighters developed in the former Soviet Union were bought in the 1980s, according to the same source.
According to the French press agency, which quotes Joseph Dempsey, a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the “active” fleet is “smaller” because an “unknown percentage” of the planes are parked in hangars or out of service and “maybe they can they don’t fly anymore.” .
Dempsey believes North Korea is rotating its “outdated or obsolete” fleet to “keep it operational and extend its use,” he says.
A 2020 report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies notes that North Korea is “unable to pay enough fuel, cover maintenance costs, or properly train pilots.”
According to the report, without sufficient fuel, pilots accumulate limited flight time and are unable to learn or maintain their combat skills.
According to US Defense Intelligence, pilots fly 15 to 25 hours a year, well below the US and South Korean air force average.
Ahn Chan-il, a specialist in North Korean studies, describes the North Korean Air Force as too late to be “compared” to other countries.
He believes that “it is no exaggeration to say that the North Korean Air Force is a parked aircraft that hardly receives any proper training”.
reasons for weakness
According to a 2013 Seoul Military History Institute report, North Korea boasted of having “twice the air capacity” of Seoul in the 1970s.
According to the report, the then-powerful North Korean Air Force sent aid to Hanoi during the Vietnam War and to Syria and Egypt during the October 1973 War.
But the collapse of the Soviet Union – which was a major source of financial and military support – and the decline of its economy contributed to North Korea’s impoverishment in the 1990s.
And Chun In-Bam, a retired South Korean air force general, notes that Russia’s attempt to “establish diplomatic ties with Seoul has caused Moscow not to provide the North with the kind of military support that the Soviets normally give to it.”
It has also imposed tough sanctions on Pyongyang over its missile and nuclear weapons programs, making it harder to find resources to develop and modernize its conventional armed forces.
The retired general added that “North Korea has decided to focus heavily on developing its nuclear programs.”
Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies said it was a “strategic” decision by Pyongyang.
He stated that “North Korea’s best card for dealing with the world is nuclear weapons.”
Disorderly balance of power
For his part, Daniel Pinkston of Seoul’s Troy University says that in the unlikely event of air battles against South Korea or the United States, “the North Korean air force will not be able to outperform them.”
The difference in resources and technology was clearly demonstrated last week during air exercises between the United States and South Korea dubbed “Wake Storm,” which featured some of the world’s most advanced aircraft.
Unlike Soviet-era North Korean fighters, American and South Korean pilots flew sophisticated F-35 stealth fighters, long-range B-1B heavy bombers, electronic warfare aircraft, and in-flight refueling aircraft.
In contrast, North Korea last week conducted simulated missile launches to destroy enemy air bases.
“North Korea considers it important to attack and neutralize the air bases first because its air force is weak,” said Cheong Seong Chang, a researcher at the Sejong Institute.
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