Generally speaking, North Korea’s air force is dilapidated, outdated, and impotent against the ultra-modern U.S. Air Force, but that doesn’t mean Pyongyang cannot back up its recent threat to down American warplanes.
It’s possible North Korea possesses an air defense system similar to an older Russian design called the S-300P, which may have a range of up to 150 km (about 93 miles). Designated the KN-06 by South Korean and U.S. militaries, it’s unclear whether Pyongyang has manufactured the system in significant numbers or whether it can penetrate American anti-air defenses.
Still, Western intelligence services have routinely underestimated North Korean industrial and technological capabilities, so it’s possible there are enough KN-06 systems forward-deployed to be a real threat to U.S. Air Force, South Korean and Japanese warplanes — if they get close enough to North Korean batteries.
It should also be said that North Korea has downed American aircraft in the past and gotten away with it — twice. In 1969, the North Koreans shot down a U.S. Navy EC-121 Warning Star reconnaissance aircraft killing all 31 crew members onboard. On December 18, 1994, North Korea shot down an unarmed U.S. Army OH-58 Kiowa reconnaissance helicopter over the demilitarized zone killing one pilot and capturing another.
And in January 1968, the North Koreans seized the U.S. Navy surveillance ship USS Pueblo—killing one sailor and capturing 83 others. The sailors were released in December of the same year; the ship — the USS Pueblo — remains in North Korean hands.
It’s not at all certain the Trump administration would be so willing to let the North Koreans off the hook if they shot down an American warplane, especially a pricey new F-35B or a B-1B bomber.
Why it’s on our radar: Information in this article helps satisfy Priority Intelligence Requirement 3: What are the latest indicators of a U.S.-North Korea war? Each week in our Strategic Intelligence Summary, we gauge the likelihood and scope of conflict with Russia, China, North Korea, and in the Middle East, and track the latest developments in each region. Subscribe here to receive our premium intelligence products prepared by Intelligence and special operations veterans.