Yesterday, North Korea scrambled some 180 jet aircraft along its border with South Korea prompting South Korea to sortie some 80 fighters of its own, including F-16s and F-35s in response.  This incident took place as the US and South Korea conducted joint training exercises during Vigilant Storm 23. The exercise was scheduled to run for five days beginning on Monday, November 1st, and ending on Friday. Vigilant Storm exercises are held to practice wartime missions to enhance the combat readiness of US and ROK forces and have been held for 23 years.

North Korea protests against these annual exercises as provocations and generally reacts with provocations of their own in response.  On this occasion, the North Korean move was to launch some 23 ballistic missiles from its Eastern and Western bases Wednesday into the ocean in a record number of launches for a single day.  In a report from South Korea’s Defense Ministry, one of the missiles landed in the water on the south side of the Northern Limit Line which is considered South Korea’s maritime border.

North Korea then followed up on Thursday with 6 more launches with one missile falling into the Eastern Sea of Japan so close to the Japanese mainland that take shelter warnings were issued to several civilian areas in Japan near the coast.

The South Korean response was to fire 3 surface to air missiles into the ocean and announce that Vigilant Storm would be extended.  The exercise involves some 100 US aircraft including fighters, bombers, and aerial refueling aircraft along with South Korean F-15s, F-16S, and their new F-35 Lightening II fighters which comprise 3 squadrons with another 20 aircraft being added next year. On the ground US and South Korean troops practice close air support operations, anti-aircraft procedures, search and rescue and base defense exercises.

Overnight on November 4th, the North Koreans fired some 80 artillery rounds into the sea as well. This was followed by the launch of some 180 aircraft between 11 am and 3 pm which flew close to the east/west border of the two countries.


North Korean leader Kim Jong Un poses with a North Korean People’s Air Force MiG-29 and air force personnel in 2012. The green paint scheme suggests this aircraft would be employed in a ground attack role and would be harder to see from another aircraft looking down at it. KCNA

North Korea has about 570 combat aircraft the newest of which is 35 Mig-29s that were developed in the 1970s. The rest are a mixed bag of Mig-23s, Mig21s, Su-7s, Su-25s, and various Chinese-made variants of the Mig-21,  Mig 17s, and Mig-19s.  In the face of the combined might of South Korean and US aircraft, the North Korean air force would cease to exist in a matter of days.

North Korea has not been able to acquire new aircraft in some 30 years and has been forced to keep what it has flying.  The fact that they were able to put 180 into the air at once is rather impressive given that most experts believe that as few as 75-100 are actually flyable given the difficulty in obtaining parts and engines for aircraft that are 70 years old in some cases.  Given that the 180 aircraft were detected on radar over a period of 5 hours, it’s possible North Korea sortied perhaps 60 which flew around, landed, refueled, and then took off again to make it appear as if it represented a much larger number.


U.S. Marine Corps F-35 Lightning IIs from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 242, out of Iwakuni, Japan, taxi at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, Oct. 31, 2022. The aircraft traveled to Kunsan as a part of the Pacific Air Forces command sponsored VIGILANT STORM 23 training event. VIGILANT STORM is a regularly scheduled training designed to enhance the combat readiness and survivability of U.S. and ROK forces and sustain capabilities, further strengthening the ROK U.S. Alliance. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Sadie Colbert)