This is what an (unlikely) Air War in North Korea would look like

Although defended by an obsolete Air Force made of ex-Soviet fighters and bombers North Korea still operates a decent air defense system featuring: radar system with overlapping coverage and high mobility allowing for shoot-and-scoot tactics, anti-aircraft guns (probably ex-Soviet ZSU-23s) and shoulder-fired stinger-like missiles.

Kim Jong-un (right) with Ri Yong-ho

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As pointed out by an interesting article published on Popular Mechanics website tunnels and command centres located underground, similarily to Afghan Tora-Bora, could make hitting key fortified and hidden targets a bit difficult.


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The general picture of the U.S. forces location in case of war in the peninsula sees B-2s flying from Missouri and F-22s stationed in South Korea: however, this is a plan based only on the recent involvement of these aircraft in the region.

Even if the batwing bomber could operate from their homebases in Continental U.S., as done in Serbia and Libya, there’s a chance they could be stationed at Guam in the Pacific in a second stage of the air campaign.

Guam as well as other bases in the region will be probably used to host other bombers (B-52s, B-1s) as well as the numerous tankers needed to support the air war.

An eventual war will start with the typical cruise missile attack, targeting the main air defense sites (i.e. airports, radars, SAM – surface to air missile batteries, etc).

Then, the first waves of air strikes will be conducted by stealth bombers escorted by stealth fighters, with Electronic Warfare planes (in the form of Growlers or Prowlers) providing the required electronic cover.

As already explained, F-22s would predominantely be tasked with high-value escort and air-to-surface missions.

When it comes to neutralizing the underground structures, the U.S. experience dates back to the first Iraqi war, when they were to destroy Saddam Hussein’s bunkers. Then, USAF used GBU-28 bombs, which were 2,500 kg steride-fed PaveWays. The mass of the unit was to penetrate the thick concrete roof of a bunker and explode inside.

The GBU-28 was a mother for Massive Ordnance Penetrator. Developed in order to be used against the Afghan fortified mountains the monster MOP bomb can only be carried by the B-2: each stealth bomber can carry two such weapons.

Nevertheless it is said that Pentagon has developed a new penetration munition which began testing at the beginning of this year. We might see its first use in the Korean air campaign.

For sure, what will happen after the initial stages, it’s quite difficult to predict (the unbalance of power does not imply it would be a quick campaign…) and this is one of the reasons that make the military option unlikely at the moment.


Moreover, the political situation though does not let us predict that the war will start soon.

Taking into account the fact that the North Korean Air Force is old, and the plans to launch the rockets against US targets are rather science-fiction than a realistic objectives, it is quite unlikely the war will start, or at least that it will be started by the North Koreans, regardless of the fact that the state of war with the South was declared by the North Korean leader.

Indeed, since 1994, North Korea has cancelled the cease-fire agreement six times…

When it comes to the political-outline of the crisis it bears a great resemblance to the Cold War between U.S. and USSR. It is also the reason why the War is unlikely to be started by Kim Jong Un.

The situation is quite similar to the Cold War MAD doctrine (Mutualy Assured Destruction). During the Cold War this doctrine resulted in Nash equilibrium. In other words, that meant that if any of the sides decided to attack the other, it would be destroyed. This stemmed from the extensive proliferation of the nuclear weapons.

The Nash equilibrium does not really exist in case of NK but, on the other hand, once it starts any action against the South, it is quite certain that the US intervention would have catastrophic results.

Hence, the whole crisis is rather a demonstration of ideologies, pretty much similar to the Cold War political setting, than the real conflict.

This New York Times article says that the White House officials do not consider the North Korea to be a serious threat.

According to NYT, the White House’s press secretary, Jay Carney said: “We are not seeing changes to the North Korean military posture such as large-scale mobilizations or positioning of forces, what that disconnect between rhetoric and action means, I’ll leave to the analysts to judge.”

Written with David Cenciotti

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About Jacek Siminski
Standing contributor for TheAviationist. Aviation photojournalist. Co-Founder of Expert in linguistics, Cold War discourse, Cold War history and policy and media communications.


  1. Just a thought, but has anyone been thinking about a limited engagement? I don’t think the NKs would have their nukes as their first option for when the fire begins but later when its much hotter. If so, then this would allow them the chance for a (costly) retreat, the only benefit to this would be a political one since all media activity is government controlled so turning a failure into a “great national victory” shouldn’t be that hard. The bombed out infrastructure can simply blamed on the attackers or “not enough patriotism”.

    If they were able to get any land (maybe the island they rocketed not too long ago, Yeonpyeong ) or any other concessions simply to stiffle their sabre rattling, then thats a win for the dictatorship and allows them more room to breath (internally). Its been 60 years of non-stop bull riding, they (or just Kim) needs something else… something new.

    These are my current thoughts and I invite anyone to tell me why this wouldn’t be a plausible idea.

  2. Well ok then. They would be more trouble than the Taliban that’s for sure. The cost of conflict is not really costed well in this assessment. Air campaign as described would be very expensive. More difficult than getting Gaddaffi.

    • Well Nato only sent an airforce and navy contingent that basically only struck key installation and tank columns done in only a few days. The mop up which is usually the most expensive was completely left up to the “Rebels” and that was a big mistake.

  3. I’m not a military expert, (although I love Aviation…) but I specialise in history of political philosophy. As such, I am prone to say : do not underestimate the crazyness of dictators. This is particularly true when they are as disconnected of world reality as can be a North Korean ruler. Do not forget that with Kim J U, we are facing a third generation heir, for whom the people of North Korea is nothing. In his childhood and student (?) time, he has probably never encoutered “real people”, only courtiers and obsequious generals, as appear aroud him (as controllers ? ) on the propaganda photographs. He is probably in the same mental state as Hitler in 1945 : the people of his nation have failed, they do not deserve his genius, they’d better die…
    That makes North Korea a real danger for the world.

  4. This is very well planned maneuver to weaken the dollar. All what NKorea needs to do is send an empty rocket over Japan. N Korea will then will say that the inability of American defenses to shoot down this rocket have proved American impotence and that, having nothing to fear, N Korea will resume its nuclear and ballistic experiments. This will be followed by the resumption of those experiments and the USA and her allies will have nothing to do about it. This will shake the confidence in USA’s ability to defend its interests and its allies on the long run and, in turn, will shake confidence in the dollar. Which is exactly what the Chinese want.

    • Very far fetched –> the US will most likely be able to shoot down the missile IF there is a launch and they feel the need to do so. China has very little interest in a falling USD for that it hold a massive proportion of the US debt and has ginormous currency reserves denominated in USD. As a result the markets are unlikely to hugely react to any minor events that would take place in the eastern pacific region.
      That said if hostilities break out and the US challenge its current passive hegemonic behaviour it is very likely that this will help them in many ways to reassert its ability to project its power (read influence finances)

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