On November 4 North Korea scrambled approximately 180 fighter aircraft for flights near its southern border, according to South Korean military reports, marking the second time within a month that the country has deployed large numbers of combat jets near the 38th parallel. The deployment of fighters coincides with the Vigilant Storm U.S.-led air exercises which involve over 240 combat aircraft and simulate mass strikes on North Korean targets. It also closely follows an unprecedented launch of 23 ballistic missiles and over 100 artillery rounds on November 2, which was also seen as a show of force in response to Vigilant Storm. Pyongyang has slammed Vigilant Storm – an exercise unprecedented in its size – as a major provocation. In response to North Korean exercises countering Vigilant Storm, the U.S. and South Korea agreed to extend their own exercise by one day into Saturday.
North Korea fields one of the largest fleet of combat jets in the world, although its capabilities remain limited due to an inability to purchase new fighters from abroad as a result of UN arms embargoes imposed in the 2000s. The country has as a result been forced to rely on modernising Cold War era aircraft with new avionics, such as cockpit displays and electronic warfare systems, and possibly with new air to air missile classes two of which were first unveiled in October 2021. The country’s most capable fighters include the MiG-29, a fourth generation twin engine aircraft assembled in the country under license, the variable swept wing MiG-23 which boasts powerful sensors and a very high speed and operational altitude, and the MiG-21bis, a regiment of which was acquired from Kazakhstan in the 1990s. The backbone of the fleet is formed by older MiG-21 variants.
The limited capabilities of the fighter fleet, in sharp contrast to other areas of North Korea’s armed forces which continue to receive much more modern equipment, has led the country to seek to compensate by leveraging its areas of technological strength – namely surface to air and surface to surface missiles. Modern long range air defence systems such as the Pyongae-5, which entered service in 2017, and its unnamed successor unveiled three years later, take significant pressure off the fighter fleet for challenging potential enemy incursions into North Korean airspace. Complementing these assets, a wide range of cruise and ballistic missiles such as the semi ballistic KN-23 provide an effective means of laying down fire on enemy positions, including airfields hosting U.S. and South Korean fighters, without relying on air strikes. North Korea is nevertheless expected to seek to a acquire modern fighter aircraft from abroad should any potential seller emerge, with a resumption of MiG-29 license production with Russian support having been speculated as Pyongyang increases support for the Russian-led war effort in Ukraine.