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Friday, May 24, 2013

F-35 vs F-15SE: South Korea's F-X III Competition - Part I The North Korean Threat


South Korea's F-X phase 3 competition is among the largest fighter contracts in recent years. The multi-billion dollar contract includes the sale of 60 aircraft and related systems. South Korea's Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) has been tasked with evaluating the Eurofighter Typhoon, F-15 Silent Eagle and F-35 Lighting II for the F-X phase III. The goal of this series of articles is to determine which aircraft will best fulfill the security needs of South Korea. The most constructive method of determining what piece of military equipment a nation should purchase is to first establish what capabilities a nation needs to ensure its own national security. Any potential  fighter sale on behalf South Korea must first and foremost counter potential North Korean aggression. To a lesser extent, the chosen aircraft should be capable of supporting the continued US presence in the Pacific; South Korea is committed ally in the US "rebalancing" or pivot strategy (Source 1). The F-15 silent eagle and the F-35A will be extensively evaluated in terms of stealth, avionics, maneuverability, lethality (air to air capabilities), suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) or destruction of enemy air defenses (DEAD), force interoperability, and air to ground strike capabilities.

The Omission of the Eurofighter:

Although the Eurofighter Typhoon is a participant in the F-X III program, the probability of the Eurofighter winning the competition is remote. The South Korean military has consistently chosen American equipment over those of other suppliers. Over the past decade, South Korea has imported over $6.2 billion dollars in US arms e.g. the KF-16, F-15K, PAC-2 Patriot Missiles, MGM-140 ATACMS tactical ballistic missiles, AH-64E Apache gunships, etc. (Congressional Research Service, 2011). Thus, the F-15SE and F-35 will be the primary focus of this article. The only strength of the Eurofighter bid is its strong industrial benefits. The current Eurofighter bid proposes 48 out of the 60 aircraft be assembled in South Korea. South Korea is struggling to develop a credible domestic fighter manufacturing capability hence the high level of emphasis placed upon technological transfer agreements in the F-X III deal. The winning contractor of the F-X phase 3 competition will assist the Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) in the development of the indigenous KF-X fighter. EADS Cassidian would invest $2 billion in the KF-X project if the Eurofighter wins the F-X III. The 4.5/5th generation KF-X is scheduled to replace the oldest Republic of Korea Air Force's (ROKAF) F-16s in the 2020s.

The North Korean Threat

Image 2: SA-3B GOA Surface to Air Missile

Author's note: The security issues discussed in this article were judged to be the most relevant to the F-X III program and do not encompass all threats posed by North Korea (e.g. cyberware and the KPA Navy were omitted from this article). For a more detailed examination of North Korea's full military capabilities refer to the Department of Defense report "Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea  2012".

Special Forces

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea's military strength relative to South Korea decreased substantially; winning a war to unite the two Korea's is no longer a viable option for the Kim regime. The North Korean military's primary purpose is to ensure the survival of the Kim family dynasty (Department of Defense, 2012). Although South Korean and American forces have a substantial technological edge, the Korean People's Army (KPA) has procured many weapon systems to make any incursion into North Korea as costly as possible for South Korean and American forces. The North Korean military heavily relies upon asymmetric warfare to maximize the effectiveness of its obsolete conventional military equipment. For example, North Korea has invested heavily into special operation forces. The KPA maintains 200,000 special operations personnel which would infiltrate into South Korea with through tunnel networks, boats, planes, and submarines.

"The special forces' goal is to discourage both the United States and South Korea from fighting with North Korea at the earliest stage of war by putting major infrastructure, such as nuclear plants, and their citizens at risk...the North's special forces are a key component of its asymmetric capabilities along with nuclear bombs, missiles and artillery. Their job is to create as many battlefronts as possible to put their enemies in disarray." - Kim Yeon-su, Korea National Defense University

North Korea has utilized its special operation forces on numerous occasions within the Korean Peninsula:

"Perhaps the most daring example of the North Korean SPF capability and commitment is the Blue House Raid of 1968. On 17 January, 1968, a thirty-one-man  detachment from the DPRK‘s Special Purpose Forces (reconnaissance) breached the chain-link fence on the DMZ, donned ROK uniforms and infiltrated closer than one kilometer to the official residence of the ROK president, Park Chung Hee...Although the commando team was either killed or captured, they killed seventy-one (three were Americans) people and wounded sixty-six during their attempted exfiltration back to North Korea" - Major Troy P. Krause, 1999

For more information on North Korean special purpose forces, refer to "Countering North Korean Special Purpose Forces" by Major Krause.

Conventional Forces - Air Defenses 

Image 3: North Korea acquired the Mig-29B/UB from the Soviet Union in 1988 as part of a set of broader military cooperation agreements. The Mig-29B is a less capable export variant of the original Mig-29. The KPAF also aquired the Mig-23ML and Su-25K aircraft during this period (KPA Journal, 2011). 

The Korean People's Air Force (KPAF) is tasked with the defense of North Korean airspace. The KPAF is staffed by 92,000 personnel and maintains 1,300 aircraft. Most of these aircraft were originally designed in either China or the Soviet Union during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The KPAF suffers from a number of deficiencies: 
  • Despite the impressive 1,300 figure, poor maintenance and lack of spare parts ensures that far less than 1,300 aircraft would actually be operable during a war.
  •  Pilot training is poor in part due to the limited flying time allotted to KPAF pilots. 
  • The KPAF would also be dependent upon China for fuel imports to sustain combat operations in the long term. 
  • Many of the aircraft in the KPAF inventory are simply too old to be combat effective: For example, the Mig-17F and Shenyang F-5 are incapable of beyond visual range combat. The Mig 21, J-7, and J-7B compose the backbone of the KPAF fighter force and pose only a moderate threat against modern western fighter aircraft if allowed to enter visual range. The only fighter aircraft that poses a serious threat to South Korean and American forces is the Mig-23 ML (46 in inventory) and Mig-29B/UB (45 in inventory including trainers).  

Image 4: KPAF order of battle. (Image retrieved via The Aviationist, 2013)

The KPAF has not been able import any modern fighter aircraft since the Soviet deal in 1988. The current state of political relations has kept North Korea from receiving any substantial military equipment imports and this trend will likely continue into the future. Many of the same types of aircraft in the KPAF's current inventory were ineffective against Western forces in both Desert Storm and Kosovo. Furthermore Israeli pilots in F-16's and F-15's effectively established air superiority against Arab air forces equipped with much of the same equipment as North Korea (e.g. Mig-19, Mig-21 and Mig-23). Given both the level of hardening many North Korean military bases feature and the number of surface to air missiles deployed, its clear Pyongyang does not put a great deal of faith in its own Air Force.

Image 5: North Korean air defense network: purple = SA-5 Gammon , red = SA-2 & HQ-2 , Cyan = SA-3B GOA. Image Credit: Sean O'Connor. 

The North Korean integrated air defense system (IADS) represents a more substantial threat to Allied aircraft than the KPAF. However, the surface to air missile (SAM) systems employed by North Korea are aging rapidly. North Korea's most capable SAM is the S-200 (SA-5) which was acquired in the 1980s in limited supply (36 missiles). North Korea has two active S-200 sites which pose a threat to ISR aircraft and strategic bombers but are minimally effective against maneuverable targets like fighter aircraft. The SA-3B GOA is a medium range SAM which provides air defense around Pyongyang and critical areas of the country. The backbone of the North Korean air defense is comprised by the S-75 (SA-2) Guideline acquired during the 1960s and 1970s. North Korea has both mobile SA-2 launch vehicles and fixed hardened SA-2 sites. 

Image 6: North Korea reportedly received 1,950 SA-2 Guideline missiles from the Soviet Union. A combination of electronic warfare aircraft and F-177 stealth fighters enabled coalition forces to destroy Iraqi SA-2 sites with minimal losses in Desert Storm. 

The KPA fields a variety of self propelled anti-aircraft guns (SPAAG) such as the ZSU-23-4. These weapons ensure that even after the KPAF looses control of the skies, North Korea will retain some anti-aircraft capabilities. However, SPAAGs are limited in range and would only pose a significant threat to low flying aircraft at close range. North Korean forces would also use man portable air defense systems (MANPADS) to target low flying aircraft. The KPA has over 10,000 MANPADS including the modern Igla-1 (SA-16) which is similar in terms of performance to the FIM-92 stinger. However, North Korea places too much importance upon SPAAGS and MANPADS for its air defense:  

"One further issue to address is the overreliance on AAA and MANPADS' in the DPRK. The DPRK possesses some of the highest AAA concentrations in the world. The general concept is that combat aircraft will fly at lower altitudes to more easily evade SAM batteries, making them susceptible to AAA or MANPADS'. What the DPRK has overlooked is the fact that its SAM defenses are inadequate in light of current ECM and SEAD systems, allowing combat aircraft to fly at higher altitudes to avoid the bulk of the AAA and the entirety of the MANPADS threat. AAA is comparatively cheap and can be very effective in the right environment, but the DPRK seems to have seriously erred in its judgement." - Sean O'Connor

Image 7:  ZSU-23-4 

For a more detailed look at the North Korean IADS, refer to The North Korean SAM Network article from the IMINT & Analysis blog. 

Conventional Forces - Korean People's Army

"The Korean People’s Army (KPA) – an umbrella organization comprising ground, air, naval, missile, and special operations forces – ranks in personnel numbers as the fourth largest military in the world. Four to five percent of North Korea’s 24 million people serve on active duty, and a further 25-30 percent are assigned to a reserve or paramilitary unit and subject to wartime mobilization. The KPA fields primarily legacy equipment, either produced in, or based on designs of, the Soviet Union and China, dating back to the 1950s, 60s and 70s, though a few systems are based on more modern technology". - Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, 2012

The KPA's greatest asset is its manpower with over 950,000 personnel. The KPA also fields 4,100 tanks (T-55, T-59, T-62, Chonma-ho, PT-76, and Pokpung-ho) and 2,100 other armored vehicles. As with the KPAF, maintenance is an issue and not all vehicles are combat ready. The T-55 and T-62 preformed poorly against both Israeli centurion tanks (originally from the UK) during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and against American M1A1 Abrams tanks in Desert Storm. Although South Korean and American forces have less tanks deployed on the Korean Peninsula, the qualitative edge of the allied tank force (K-1, K-1A, M1A1, and M1A2) is considerable. 

For an exhaustive look at the entire North Korean military inventory, refer to the North Korea's Conventional Arms graphic by the National Post 

Artillery & Ballistic Missiles 

Image 8: M1978 Koksan 170 mm self propelled artillery gun. North Korea deploys 36 of these weapons from hardened shelters, some are positioned along the DMZ.

Despite North Korea's recent progress in nuclear capabilities, the majority of sources agree that North Korea has yet to successfully engineer missile mountable warheads. North Korea's main deterrent still lies in its extensive conventional artillery and strategic rocket forces. Seoul, the capital and largest population center of South Korea, is 30 miles (50 km) from the DMZ. North Korea has positioned roughly 60% of its military assets near the DMZ including a sizable portion of its highly mobile rocket and artillery forces. North Korea maintains several types of high power Soviet artillery rockets (FROG-5 & FROG-7B). These rocket artillery units can relocate in a matter of minutes between hardened shelters. Furthermore, the KPA fields 8,500 artillery guns and 5,100 multiple rocket launcher systems which are camouflaged or stationed in hardened positions along the DMZ (Department of Defense, 2013). Victor Cha and David Kang estimate North Korea could launch 500,000 artillery rounds at Seoul in one hour. Estimates on the number of shells North Korea could fire at Seoul vary significantly but most analysts agree significant damage could be dealt to Seoul.

Image 9: North Korean No-Dong missile.

The consensus among most experts is North Korea would loose a war with the United States and South Korea but North Korea would inflict grievous damage to South Korean cities and infrastructure. Thousands of South Korean civilians would loose their lives in the conflict. The main guarantor of North Korea's deterrence is its strategic rocket force. North Korea maintains nearly 1,000 short range and theatre range ballistic missiles such as the SCUD-B, SCUD-C, SCUD-ER, Hwasong-5, Hwasong-6, No-Dong, and Musudan missiles. North Korea has manufactured hundreds of domestically produced Hwasong-5 and Hwasong-6 missiles to supplement its stockpile of Russian Scuds. Most of the variants in the Scud family of missiles have poor accuracy and reliability. The SCUD-B has a circular error probable (CEP) of nearly 1 km meaning it would not be an effective weapon to target military targets unless launched in mass (50% of missiles would land within 900 meters of the desired target). However, these missiles would be effective as terror weapons as the Iran-Iraqi War showed. Both sides exchanged hundreds of Scuds missiles during the war and targeted civilians (RAND, 1991). These missiles have a payload of 1,000 kg which could include high explosives, chemical agents, or biological agents. Chemical and biological agents in particular would be effective terror weapons.

North Korea has access to sarin, mustard gas, and phosgene which it could equip to its Scud missiles. The old Soviet chemical weapons warheads typically contain one chamber meaning that if separate components are required to form the nerve agent, like Sarin, the components have to be mixed on the ground before use and would only remain viable for a limited duration afterward. (Noah Shachtman, 2012). In terms of biological agents, North Korea could equip its warheads with botulism, anthrax, and pneumonic plague (Richard Johnson, 2013).


The F-X III finalist must be able to:
  • Establish air superiority over the Korean peninsula 
  • Defeat the North Korean IADS 
  • Provide extensive air-to ground support to counter a variety of threats: enemy armor, hardened facilities, precision strike against KPA special operations units, etc.  
  • Collect and share intelligence effectively; North Korean targets are often camouflaged and highly mobile.  
  • Operate seamlessly with American forces 

  1. Pivot to the Pacific? The Obama Administration’s “Rebalancing” Toward Asia, 2012
  2. KPA Journal vol 6, no. 2, 2011 - M1978 
  3. KPA Journal vol 2, no. 4, 2011 - Mig-29 
  6. Think Again: North Korea, DAVID KANG, VICTOR CHA, 2013
  7. The North Korean SAM Network, Sean O'Connor, 2010
  8. A Look At North Korea's Artillery Shows Why No One Wants War, Eric Talmadge,, 2013
  9. A History of Ballistic Missile Development in the DPRK
  10. North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation
  11. Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea 2012
  12. A History of Ballistic Missile Development in the DPRK LONGER RANGE DESIGNS, 1989-PRESENT
  14. Syrian Bombs Are Now Filled With Chemicals — And Could Be Up for Grabs, Noah Shachtman, 2012
  15. Graphic: What Are North Korea’s Intentions?- National Post, 2013

Image 10: A North Korean Mig-29B intercepting an American RC-135S in 2003. 


  1. Great post!

    Can you guess what the 'secret' capabilities of the F-35 are and if the F15 SE might have them?

    1. I plan to speculate on some of the classified capabilities of the F-35 such as electronic warfare capabilities but is there anything in particular you were curious about?

  2. Frankly, I don't even much of an understanding of what electronic warfare is (even after reading the Wikipedia article) let alone how effective it is applied by a fighter (couldn't it cause friendly fire?). Has it been tested in any warfare yet?

    I'm also interested in how an F-35 would actually interface with drones. I'm pushing it, but I suspect the F-35 is designed to guide cheap future air superiority (etc) drones in ways other air forces cannot.

  3. Electronic Warfare (EW) is the act of analyzing transmissions (radio, radar, etc) to get a better grasp of the battlefield and broadcasting your own transmissions (jammers, radar, etc) to confuse the enemy.

    EW comes in two basic forms, Active and Passive.

    Passive EW is when a computer analyzes transmissions around the plane to determine the source of those transmissions. When the enemy turns on a radar, Passive EW is used to classify the transmitter and try and geolocate (determine where it is) the source. Besides radar, Passive EW can also classify radio transmitters (datalinks, voice radios, etc) and misc electronic leakage (radio signals unintentionally emitted from devices). This information is used to build a map of the battlefield in order to understand where the enemy is and where he is going.

    Active EW is when you broadcast a signal to disrupt the enemy. This could be trying to jam his radar, radio, datalinks, etc. Besides outright jamming, they could also be used to confuse the enemy systems into believing a target is somewhere else (decoys) or to infect computer systems.

  4. Wow, that made so much more sense, thanks!

    1. Yeah, Spud sure knows his stuff :). In regards to actual combat, The United States has used electronic warfare on several occasions. We used EF-111A Ravens in conjunction with modified F-4 Phantoms (Wild Weasel aircraft) to suppress Iraqi air defenses. The Ravens jammed early warning radars while the F-4’s used Anti-radiation missiles (e.g. AGM-88 HARM) to destroy the radars. F-111’s and F-15E strike eagle’s mopped up anything that was left. It was a pretty effective strike package and electronic jamming was vital to its success. Since Desert Storm, electronic warfare has grown in sophistication. More recently, Syrian weapons destined for Hezbollah were intercepted and destroyed by Israeli aircraft around Damascus. Damascus has heavy air defenses and most observers believe IAF forces utilized electronic warfare to disable the Syrian IADS. Israel maintains a robust electronic warfare capacity as it has no stealth aircraft to deal with enemy air defenses. The United States fortunately has both capabilities. If electronic warfare interests you, I've written an article on how Israel would strike Iranian nuclear sites you can also check out this article from the Aviationist.
      Air strike on Damascus military complex shows Syrian Air Defense can do nothing against Israeli Electronic Warfare

    2. Thanks Mangler, I'm checking it out right now.