Earlier this month after joint American and South Korean “Vigilant Storm” military exercises, North Korea test-launched up to 30 ballistic missiles in two days and an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile on November 3. To further provoke South Korea, the North conducted at least 180 flights with various warplanes. The South Koreans responded with 80 of its own airplanes, including the F-35. It appears Seoul’s decision to include the Lightning II in its air force was a prudent move.
What Can North Korea Fly?
The South Korean F-35s aim to outclass any fighter that North Korea possesses. The North hasn’t purchased a new warplane in over the last three decades. The fighters and bombers aren’t modern and there are only 56 clunky MiG-23 and 35 better MiG-29 fighters, 34 average Su-25 attack planes, and 80 aged H-5 bombers – all at least 30 years old. The rest of its total of 572 airplanes are ancient MiG-17s, MiG-19s, and MiG-21s. Those have been obsolete for years. But the North is expected to throw everything it has into a potential aerial battle and execute the equivalent of a mass wave attack.
F-35 and More: South Korea’s Air Force Is Much More Modernized
By comparison, the South Koreans have at least 40 F-35As and the government has ordered another 20-piece Lightning II batch to arrive by 2028. The South Koreans have a total of 890 aircraft including helicopters, transports, and trainers. A little over half of those are fighters, so estimate about 450 tactical warplanes.
First Day of Battle
An air war over North Korea would start with the Republic of Korea’s forces launching a massive cruise missile attack to take out air defenses, SAMs, radars command and control, and airplanes on the ground. This would have to be accurate surgical strikes as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has numerous networks of caves and underground features to hide and protect its military assets. If the United States joined in, it could fly stealth bombers from America to further saturate DPRK. Electronic warfare and command and control aircraft would take to the skies. This initial wave was called the “bloody nose” strike by former White House National Security Advisor HR McMaster.
Then It Is Time for the Lightning II
Next would be the F-35s. Forty would be a strong force that could do ground damage plus outfly North Korea’s fighters and evade radar. These would be joined by South Korean F-15s and F-16s. It would be a huge dogfight, but the stealth F-35s should have the upper hand while the conventional fighters would take the brunt of the casualties. South Korea still flies older F-4s and F-5s.
Keep Buying the F-35
That’s why the F-35 is so integral to South Korea and its air force cannot buy enough of them. The F-15K Slam Eagle is a good fighter too and could best the DPRK’s MiG-29s, arguably their best fighter.
Able to Keep the Peace Too
The F-35 should be able to fly missions near the DMZ without detection for intelligence and reconnaissance data collection. This would be a peacetime gem as well as a wartime stalwart. The F-35 would have many advantages in a dogfight and combined with the F-15K Slam Eagle, the ROK pilots would have the edge in combat. They would only be limited by fuel and the number of weapons.
Keep Up Realistic Training
ROK aviators simply have to fly the F-35 as much as possible to become dominant at night and in all weather. They would form the vanguard in battle and mount serious capabilities to enforce the ROK’s territorial integrity. As long as the United States and South Korea continue to conduct joint military exercises, Kim Jong Un will fire missiles and launch fighters in a show of force. The ROK air force will respond in kind. It will be necessary to avoid confrontations that could spark an accidental shootdown or some other mishap that could spark an intense confrontation between the two sides that could lead to a broader conflict. If that happens, the F-35 will play an outsized role.
Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.