Warplanes: Extreme Measures in North Korea


September 17, 2023: North Korea is converting 400 of its 1950’s era MiG-17 and MiG-19 fighters into cruise missiles. North Korea is the last nation to still have many of these aircraft in service, mainly because North Korea cannot obtain any additional modern aircraft. The North Korea Air Force consists of about 1,300 Cold War era Russian and Chinese aircraft, about half of them combat planes. The Chinese aircraft are knockoffs of older Russian designs, and most of the North Korean fleet consists of aircraft designs that were getting old in the 1970s.

North Korean Air Force training exercises with the MiG-17s and 19s are rare because these elderly aircraft are difficult to keep flying. That means pilots get very little time in the air and only have basic flying skills. This is common throughout the North Korean air force and explains why the North Korean Air Force can barely fly and hardly fight. The Russian MiG-19 (over 2,200 built) is an 8.8 ton, single engine, single seat aircraft with a max speed of 1,500 kilometers an hour. It only carries a half ton of bombs and was designed over 70 years ago. The MiG-19 is an improved (supersonic) version of the MiG-17, which entered service in 1952 and weighed six tons. Three years later the MiG-19 appeared.

Currently, North Korea is the only country still using MiG-17s and MiG-19s but has a difficult time keeping them flyable. North Korea obtained 40 used MiG-29s in the 1980s and considers them their best jet fighters. The MiG-29s have more experienced pilots and fly more often. Turning 400 older MiGs into cruise missiles will mean more resources for the MiG-29s.

South Korea considers the North Korean air force more of a nuisance than a threat and plans to destroy most North Korean aircraft in the air or on the ground, including the caves where many are kept, in the early stages of any future war. North Korea seeks to avoid this by using most of these aircraft first in a surprise attack and holding back some of them, safe inside tunnels. South Korea has plans to deal with all that but will not, for obvious reasons, discuss details.

North Korean Air Force training exercises often feature the loss of a MiG-17 or MiG-19. The most modern aircraft the North Koreans have are 40 MiG-29s they got in the 1980s, when they were still getting gifts from the Soviet Union. The rest of their combat aircraft are poorly maintained and infrequently used antiques because of fuel and spare parts shortages.


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