North Korea Scrambles Fighters in Response to Deep American Air Intrusion: What Roles Are Combat Aviation Allocated Today?

The Korean People’s Army (KPA) Air Force has scramble fighters to respond to an intrusion by American military aircraft into North Korea’s exclusive economic zone. The KPA General Staff Department announced that an American aircraft had intruded 14km into the zone near Wonsan Port on August 17, with no incidents reported. “Our military is ready to take all measures to safeguard the sovereignty of the republic,” the General Staff statement highlighted, although it did not confirm what class of aircraft had been used on either side. The incident comes as U.S. reconnaissance aircraft violated airspace over North Korea’s exclusive economic zone over 30 times in early July, and after the KPA Air Force’s fighter fleet has been increasing active in meeting perceived threats to North Korean security over the past year. In the first week of October 2022 the KPA deployed combat aircraft for air to surface firing drills near the demilitarised zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, leading South Korea to scramble 30 F-15K fighters which resulted in an hour long standoff. Northern state media a week later published footage of combat jets involved in large scale exercises near the DMZ. In response to the initiation of U.S.-led Vigilant Storm air exercises from October 31, which involved over 240 combat aircraft and simulated mass strikes on North Korean targets targets, the KPA on November 4 scrambled approximately 180 fighters for operations near the DMZ. 

As the KPA has conspicuously invested in modernising major airfields, it has been speculated that it may have gained greater access to supplies and possibly new aircraft for its combat fleet through Russia. The country has also unveiled indigenous air to air missiles in October 2021 at the Self Defence 2021 National Defence Development Exhibition, which combined with avionics upgrades could transform the effectiveness of its combat fleet. Due largely to UN arms embargoes, the limitations faced by North Korean combat aviation have resulted in a much greater emphasis on surface to air and surface to surface missile assets to more cost effectively provide defensive and counterstrike capabilities that would in other fleets be fulfilled by aviation. The result has been major breakthroughs in these areas, including the deployment of highly potent new assets such as the Pyongae-5 air defence system and KN-23 tactical ballistic missile.

The ability to safeguard national airspace is particularly highly prized in North Korea due largely to the historical memory of the Korean War, which saw every building over two stories levelled largely by American and allied bombings over three years killing around 20 percent of the population. The threat of a new conflict has far from subsided into the 21st century. In 2019 U.S.  Defence Secretary James Mattis revealed that the Trump administration had been close to approving mass nuclear strikes across North Korea which were expected to kill millions, with the preceding Obama, Clinton, Nixon, Johnson and Eisenhower administrations all having come close to launching major strikes the latter three using nuclear weapons. This has resulted in a high degree of importance being attacked to both air defence capabilities and to an advanced nuclear deterrent.