This Is What Air War Over North Korea Would Look Like
Why the U.S. sends stealth aircraft to Korean war games, and why it freaks out North Korea.
Joe Pappalardo, Popular Mechanics, April 1, 2013
It’s easy to mock North Korea for its lack of infrastructure—shoddy communications, electricity, and transportation. But one thing the nation has is a decent air defense system. Because military action of any size would require dominating the airspace over the rogue nation, the radar sites and antiaircraft missiles available to Kim Jong-un make the airspace over North Korea one of the world’s most dangerous.
That’s not to say it’s impenetrable. The U.S. Air Force has faced much of this hardware before, and prevailed—it’s just not easy. And last week, the U.S. began to fly B-2 practice missions over the Korean peninsula, just to remind North Korea what the American Air Force can do.
Here’s what you should know about the attack and defense strategies on both sides of the DMZ.
North Korean Defense
North Korea has air defenses that cover most of the country. The border is a wall of radar, with overlapping coverage. The coasts are also covered to prevent access from that direction. And because so much military infrastructure is located in the interior of North Korea, much of that airspace is well-defended too. Much of this gear was made during the Soviet era but modernized with digital controls. North Korea also fields Chinese versions of radar equipment. Mobile radar units, mounted on vehicles, can provide a shoot-and-scoot capability that helps radar defenses survive an attack.
High-flying attack aircraft may choose to duck under radar nets. To defend against that strategy, the North Koreans have invested a lot of energy in antiaircraft guns. These are low-tech but can be dangerous. In fact, their relative lack of sophistication could be an asset—the manually operated systems are immune to cyber attacks and other electronic warfare. North Korea will use these guns to protect its radar sites, and it has another, more capable threat to low-fliers: thousands of shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles.
Yes, North Korea has Soviet-era fighters and bombers, but these are not much of a threat given South Korea’s air defenses and highly capable pilots in modern warplanes such as U.S. F-15s and F-16s.
The last lines of defense are the tunnels—some air bases and command centers are burrowed underground. An attacking air force could cave these in or destroy them outright, but that would require extra-precision airstrikes and possibly special ordnance such as bunker busters. This complicates an air campaign, especially one with many priority targets to hit early in the war (North Korean artillery batteries, ballistic missiles, weapons of mass destruction, and troop concentrations, for example), each competing for attention.
Some observers equate the North Korean defenses with Iraq’s in 1991, which the U.S.-led coalition dismantled with surprisingly few casualties. It’s true that a lot of the equipment is the same, but the seeming ease of Desert Storm belies the dangers that could await on the Korean peninsula. In one often-forgotten encounter, the Iraqis observed the aerial refueling of inbound F-117 stealth fighters on radar. They waited for a half-hour, then let loose a barrage of missiles and AA gunfire over Baghdad. It turned out that the U.S. warplanes were bound for Mosul, but if they had been heading to the capital, the tactic could have worked.
Allied Attack Strategy
Stealth airplanes such as the B-2 Spirit and F-22 Raptor are built to operate in areas with thick air defenses. Yes, their shapes and materials can evade radar, giving the U.S. an obvious advantage over North Korea. But each has specific capabilities that must make North Korea war planners uneasy.
The B-2 has an immense range. North Korea has hundreds of ballistic missiles that it could use to attack airbases in the region. The B-2, however, can fly from the safety of Missouri to strike targets deep inside North Korea. And when it comes to ordnance, the B-2 is rated to drop the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a 30,000-pound bunker buster. This is a good antidote for underground priority targets.
The B-2 has other tricks. In 1991, the U.S. fooled Iraqi defenders with a barrage of decoys that caused the radar crews to switch on their systems—which could then be targeted. This is an important tactic when facing radar systems mounted on vehicles. Decoys have gotten smaller and more advanced; Raytheon’s MALD is a good example. The B-2 can carry these decoys, launch them from 500 miles away, and confuse defenders into firing at the wrong targets.
The F-22 has never faced combat. But Raptors have appeared in Pentagon exercises in Korea, signaling that this is a place they could make their debut. Of all stealth aircraft, the Raptor is the fastest, most maneuverable, and hardest to spot. It dominates the sky—the North Korean air force would be seriously outmatched—but can also conduct air-to-ground missions. The F-22 could play a major role along the DMZ, if there were air bases nearby that had not been struck with conventional or chemical weapon warheads (the F-22 doesn’t have the B-2’s globe-spanning range).
The appearance of stealth warplanes over the Korean peninsula spooked North Korea. The reason: They are meant to exploit and defeat the regime’s defense plans.