Developed under the Joint Strike Fighter program, the F-35 was for years the only fighter on order by the U.S. Air Force and is set to be fielded in the thousands by America and its allies even if expected cuts are implemented. Developed primarily for air to ground missions, the aircraft is one of just two from the new fifth generation both in production and fielded at squadron level strength alongside the Chinese J-20. While F-35 fleets have been fast growing facing leading potential U.S. adversaries China and Russia, as well more minor ones such as Iran, the ability of North Korea to defend itself against such aircraft was highlighted by joint F-35 exercises between South Korea and the United States from July 11-14. The East Asian state has been technically at war with the United States for over 70 years, making it by far America’s oldest state adversary, and with the U.S. having multiple times come close launching an assault the need to counter the F-35 has become increasingly critical for North Korea.
Writing regarding the growing F-35 deployments near North Korea, and the means by which the country’s armed forces the Korean People’s Army (KPA) are most likely to respond, scholar and prominent Korea expert A. B. Abrams observed in the Japanese Magazine The Diplomat that a range of asymmetric weapons would be key to countering the new stealth fighter. Abrams highlighted that the KPA fielded advanced fighters capable of threatening and on many occasions shooting down American jets during the Cold War, but that after the Soviet collapse and subsequent imposition of UN arms embargoes the country was unable to acquire modern combat jets to match those deployed by its adversaries symmetrically. While the Korean piloted MiG-21s fielded in the 1960s and 70s proved a match for and several times went head to head with American F-4s over Vietnam, Korea and the Middle East, and its MiG-29s acquired in the 1980s were considered a close match for the American and South Korean F-16s and F-15s fielded at the time, the KPA is not expected to acquire any fifth or even ‘4+ generation’ fighters for the foreseeable future due to UN embargoes. Four key means of tackling F-35 fleets asymmetrically were explored by Abrams, two of which involved the targeting of fighters on the ground and two more targeting them with mobile air defence systems. (A. B. Abrams is the author of ‘Immovable Object: North Korea’s 70 Years at War with American Power’ among other titles covering Northeast Asian security, most recently ‘China and America’s Tech War From AI to 5G: The Struggle to Shape the Future of World Order.’)
The first assets which Abrams highlighted could impede F-35 operations are tactical ballistic missiles, most notably the KN-23, KN-24 and Hwasong-8. The first two are optimal for targeting air bases across the Korean Peninsula, and were first test fired in 2019, while the third is a longer ranged platform and the first outside Russia and China to integrate a hypersonic glide vehicle. It was first fired in September 2021, and is optimal for neutralising air bases and key F-35 logistics assets in Japan. With the fifth generation fighters requiring more fuel and maintenance than their fourth generation predecessors, and suffering from lower mission capable rates, the ability to target F-35s and their facilities on the ground is potentially the most effective way of neutralising them, particularly for countries with advanced missile industries. Abrams highlighted a U.S. Congressional Research Service report which referred to the KN-23 as an asset that “exemplifies the most notable advance” among KPA tactical weapons, and could perform complex “pull-up” manoeuvres to confuse enemy air defences, while the KN-24 “demonstrates the guidance system and in-flight manoeuvrability to achieve precision strikes.” Complementing these assets, and potentially providing a greater volume of fire more cheaply albeit with a short range, Abrams highlighted that North Korea’s rocket artillery systems the KN-09 and KN-25 were fielded from the 2010s with ranges unrivalled by competing systems abroad at 200km and over 400km respectively. This allowed them to target airfields deep into South Korea, and pose a threat to air operations in a way that no 20th century artillery systems ever could.
Complementing the considerable advances to KPA strike capabilities made in the 2010s, Abrams highlighted the significant improvements to North Korea’s ground based air defence network, it’s greater centrality to protecting the country’s airspace due to the inability to substantially modernise its fighter fleet, and its transition away from Soviet supplied systems towards a reliance on domestic ones. The entry into service in 2017 of the Pyongae-5, widely compared to the Russian S-300, provided a mobile and survivable long range air defence capability decades in advance of North Korea’s prior assets. Abrams compared the reliance on such systems with that of the Russian Military, which similarly saw the standing of its air force relative to those of its adversaries decline after the Cold War’s end forcing it to also rely on asymmetric ground based defence systems. An advanced successor compared to the S-400, with missiles using twin rudder control and a double impulse flight engines, was unveiled in 2020.
Assets such as the Pyongae-5 are complemented by shorter ranged air defence systems, with Abrams notably highlighting the proven effectiveness of even older Soviet handheld infrared guided systems in Ukrainian hands against Russian fighters. With the KPA deploying these systems in much larger numbers alongside anti aircraft artillery, and using more advanced designs such as the indigenous HT-16PGJ, they could pose a serious challenge to F-35s at lower altitudes. This is particularly true as the stealth jet’s speed and altitude ceiling are both far below average. The F-35’s stealth capabilities and electronic warfare systems are also not as well optimised to tackling threats from such infrared guided missiles as they are radar guided ones, while MANPADS can be more easily concealed due to their lack of infrared signatures. While Abrams did not present an exclusive list of the means by which North Korea could potentially tackle F-35s, a number of key new capabilities were highlighted that may have received greater attention and investment in response to the perceived threat from the new stealth jets. The F-35, as indicated by Abrams among many others, is still far from being full operational or ready for high intensity combat, which provides North Korea with more time to develop a greater range of new armaments capable of challenging it.