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North Korean MiG-23 vs. South Korean F-16; Which East Asian Power Fields the Most Capable Jet as the Mainstay of its Air Force

August 08th - 2018

The armed forces of both South Korea and North Korea have long been overwhelmingly defensively oriented with the goal of preparing for a potential outbreak of a new war on the Korean Peninsula. During the Cold War the Air Forces of both countries fielded some of the most capable fighter jets available from the Soviet Union and the Untied States, though since the its end North Korea has increasingly been forces to rely on modernising older combat platforms rather than acquiring new ones while South Korea has gradually reduced its reliance on foreign made aircraft in favour of indigenous jets. With the elite of the two countries' aerial warfare capabilities are comprised of F-15K twin engine heavy fighters on the South Korean side and MiG-29 and MiG-25 twin engine jets in the north, these elite platforms are fielded in relatively small numbers relative to their lighter, older and less sophisticated single engine counterparts. The bulk of the South Korean fleet is comprised of F-16C Fighting Falcon single engine multirole fighter jets, while the northern fleet relies heavily on the older MiG-23 Flogger - also a single engine jet. A comparison of the capabilities of these fighters, both based on designs which first entered service the 1970s and both manufactured to approximately 5,000 airframes, gives invaluable insight into the potential outcome of a war on the peninsula and the balance of power in the air between the two Koreas.

While the original F-16A and MiG-23 Flogger-A were somewhat unremarkable in their capabilities, both airframe types have been modernised considerably to allow them to contend with one another on 21st century battlefields. Later variants of both fighters however, those serving today with both East Asian states, are considerably superior to the original platforms - incorporating enhanced beyond visual range capabilities, cutting edge electronic warfare systems, superior manoeuvrability, new radars and radar warning receivers and the ability to operate the latest air to air missiles - the American AIM-120B and Soviet R-27ER and R-77 respectively. While Floggers and Fighting Falcons sold by both superpowers to a number of third world client states such as Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Indonesia often left much to be desired in their capabilities, those reserved for sale to the Korean Peninsula, with both Pyongyang and Seoul being considered highly reliable defence partners, notably had capabilities far closer to those of the jets slated for service in the Soviet and American fleets themselves - and in North Korea's case variants of the MiG-23ML acquired were the very same as those designed for the Soviet Air Force itself. A analysis of the capabilities of both the Fighting Falcon and the Flogger demonstrate a highly comparable performance. The F-16C retains a combat radius of 550km, while that of the lighter Flogger is 600km - enough to comfortably give coverage over much of the Korean Peninsula. Both the MiG-23's Khatchaturov R-35-300 turbojet and the F-16C's General Electric F110 turbofan give 127 kN of thrust - though the Fighting Falcon's weight being approximately 80% greater than that of the MiG gives the Soviet built jet a considerable advantage in its manoeuvrability and a superior thrust/weight ratio. This is somewhat limited by the Flogger's maximum G load of 8.5 compared to the Falcon's 9 - allowing the U.S. built jet's airframe to pull slightly more extreme turns, as well as its marginally superior climb rate which remains 5% greater than that of the Soviet jet.

In terms of their combat capabilities, the MiG-23 appears to retain several advantages over the Fighting Falcon. The Flogger can operate at a high altitude of 18.5km - giving it a considerable and potentially decisive advantage over the F-16C's altitude limit of approximately 15.5km. The MiG-23 is also considerably faster than the F-16C, reaching speeds of Mach 2.35 where the Fighting Falcon is relegated to flying at Mach 2 or less. While both jets can carry up to six air to air missiles alongside a single cannon, the MiG-23 retains a considerably greater engagement range - with the R-27ER and R-77 retaining ranges of 130km and 110km respectively - where the F-16C's AIM-120B is restricted to ranges of 75km or less. This allows the MiG-23 to engage the Fighting Falcon well beyond its retaliation range by a comfortable margin, and poses a considerable challenge to the Falcon's operators in beyond visual range engagements.

According to Soviet military reports from the 1980s, the country was confident in the capabilities of its MiG-23 to counter the F-16 in the air - though warning strongly against engaging the heavier and more capable F-15 which retained a significant advantage over both single engine jets. Proving the point the Syrian Air Force, despite operating less capable export variants of the Flogger the time, successfully downed five Israeli F-16 fighters during clashes with the Israeli Air Force in June 1982 alone - though also taking heavy losses to the country's F-15 fleet. This was also despite considerable the discrepancy in pilot quality favouring Israel. While upgraded variants of the MiG-23 retain a number of considerable advantages over the Fighting Falcon, the F-16's simpler design and lack of complex variable swept wings make the jet easier to operate and train pilots on and allows the fighter to operate with less maintenance. In a potential war on the Korean Peninsula, where airfields are all potential targets of ballistic missile strikes, low maintenance requirements remain an invaluable asset. This disadvantage on the part of the Flogger is somewhat compensated for however by the jet's ability to operate from short and highly makeshift runways - something the F-16 was never designed for. Ultimately both Koreas have long been known for training fighter pilots to high standards, and a clash between the Flogger and the Fighting Falcon is set to be a very close one - one in which the North Korean side retains a number of considerable capability advantages which somewhat compensate for its numerical disadvantage. South Korea for its part retains a number of potential means of overcoming this capability disadvantage - including making use of the sheer weight of numbers of its F-16 fleet or relying more heavily on its F-15 Eagle fleet to spearhead an assault to hunt down the MiG-23s to spare its Fighting Falcons from such engagements. Nevertheless, the fact that the heavily modernised fighter which comprises the mainstay of North Korea's Air Force retains considerable advantages over and is largely superior to its southern counterpart remains a considerable asset in its favour.


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