What Kind Of Fighter Jets Does North Korea Have

As recently as 2014, North Korean defence analysts estimated that Pyongyang has up to 500 fighter jets available for combat, but “current estimates range from about 150 to over 200.” This huge discrepancy raises the question: exactly what kind of fighter jets does North Korea have?

First and foremost, North Korea operates one of the oldest fighter aircraft in the world: the MiG-21 Fishbed. Introduced in the 1950s, the Soviet-built MiG-21 is clever, manoeuvrable and relatively easy to maintain. North Korea reportedly has around 120 of these aircraft, making them the largest component of the nation’s fighter fleet.

Next up is the MiG-23 Flogger. This all-weather attack aircraft was introduced to North Korea in the 1980s and is capable of reaching super-sonic speeds. It is believed that Pyongyang has around 15 to 20 of these advanced jets.

North Korea also operates a select number of Su-25 Frogfoot ground-attack fighter jets, which were originally designed by the Soviets in the 1970s and have the ability to detect and engage ground targets. It is estimated that Pyongyang only has around 5 to 10 of these ground-attack aircraft.

In addition, North Korea has a few ultra-modern jets, namely the MiG-29 Fulcrum and the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker—both of which were developed by the Soviets in the 1980s. These aircraft are similar in capabilities and performance, and are believed to be the most advanced fighter jets in North Korea’s arsenal. Estimates suggest that Pyongyang only has a handful of these jets—maybe 10 or less.

Finally, North Korea also operates the Shenyang J-5—a Chinese-made version of the MiG-17. This plane is no longer in production and North Korea only holds a handful of these aircraft.

North Korea’s Fighter Jet Strategy

It is clear that North Korea sees the value in maintaining a fleet of older fighter jets like the MiG-21 and the J-5. Most of these aircraft were acquired during the Cold War and have been heavily modified over the years to stay up to date with modern technology. This strategy has allowed North Korea to maintain a degree of air superiority for many years, despite its limited resources.

In addition, North Korea appears to be embracing the concept of a multipurpose fleet. This approach combines traditional fighters—such as the MiG-21 and the MiG-23—with multi-role attack aircraft like the Su-25 and the MiG-29. This strategy allows North Korea to quickly move from defensive operations to offensive operations, if needed.

It is clear that the North Korean Air Force is ageing, but that Pyongyang is doing its best to keep its most advanced fighters in airworthy condition. This is evident in the nation’s willingness to maintain a strategy of combat readiness through a combination of modern technology, old aircraft and multi-role jets.

Foreign Involvement

Reports suggest that North Korea has received assistance from foreign powers—primarily the former Soviet Union and China—when it comes to maintaining and upgrading its fighter jets.

In the 1990s, for instance, China reportedly sent fighter pilots to train North Korean airmen. It is also believed that Russia has played a role in helping North Korea develop weapons, such as radars and missiles, for its combat aircraft.

In addition, North Korea has been known to purchase older, obsolete fighter jets from other countries and then re-engineer them for use in its air force. This has allowed Pyongyang to maintain and modernize its fighter fleet even as resources have become scarce.

Impact Of Sanctions

International sanctions have had a significant impact on North Korea’s ability to maintain and upgrade its fleet of fighter jets. Sanctions have limited the amount of money the nation has to purchase or maintain new aircraft or parts, which has made it difficult for North Korea to keep its aircraft in flying condition.

It is believed that the lack of spare parts, particularly since the mid-1990s, has had a detrimental effect on the nation’s aircraft, with many requiring frequent repairs and maintenance. This has led to a decline in combat readiness for many of North Korea’s fighter aircraft.

North Korea’s Troubled Air Force

Despite North Korea’s attempts to maintain its fighter jets, the nation’s air force is in a state of decline. Many of its fighter jets are outdated, its pilots are inexperienced, and its airfields are crumbling.

Experts estimate that of North Korea’s estimated 150-200 aircraft, only around 30% are serviceable at any given time. This means that the North Korean Air Force has little chance of mounting a serious attack against its neighbors or the United States without significant help from its foreign allies.

North Korea’s Future Fighters

It is clear that North Korea is unable to keep up with the pace of modern air combat. That said, Pyongyang is believed to be actively seeking to upgrade its fighter jet fleet in the near future.

Reports suggest that the nation is looking to acquire more advanced jets, such as China’s J-10 and the Russian Su-35, both of which are equipped with the latest avionics and weapons. It is also believed that North Korea is looking to acquire unmanned aerial vehicles to increase its intelligence-gathering capabilities.

Aircraft Reversal Engineerings

In addition, North Korea has been reverse engineering foreign aircraft for many years. It is believed that Pyongyang has successfully reverse-engineered the MIG-21 and has already developed a sophisticated modern version of the jet, known as the J-6.

North Korea is also believed to be developing its own jet trainer, the Yak-130, which is reportedly similar to the MiG-29. These new aircraft are expected to improve North Korea’s air combat capability, although it is unclear when they will enter service.

North Korea’s Short-term Goals

If the reports are correct, it appears that North Korea’s short-term goal is to focus on maintaining and modernizing its existing fleet of fighter jets while simultaneously preparing for the introduction of more advanced aircraft in the future.

North Korea is also likely looking to stay ahead of its neighbors, as tensions in the region remain high. This appears to be the main driver behind Pyongyang’s focus on air power, and is likely to remain the nation’s priority for many years to come.

North Korea’s Long-term Plans

In the long-term, it is suspected that North Korea’s goal is to build a larger, more capable air force capable of competing with its neighbors, as well as the United States.

North Korea is likely looking to acquire more advanced fighters and bombers, as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft. It is also believed that Pyongyang is seeking to develop its own unmanned aerial vehicles and attack aircraft.

The nation is also likely looking to upgrade its airfields and air defence network. It is believed that Pyongyang is looking to acquire more advanced anti-aircraft systems, such as the S-300 and S-400 missile systems, as well as develop its own missile defence systems.

Cassie Grissom is an American journalist and author living in Seoul, South Korea. She has been studying the Korean peninsula since 2011, and her work focuses on understanding human rights issues in North Korea. In addition to her work as an author, Cassie is an active advocate for human rights in North Korea. She regularly shares stories about life in North Korea with international audiences to raise awareness of the plight of its citizens.

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