South Korean Defence Modernisation

Posted on 01 October 2013


Tensions on the Korean Peninsula spiked to their highest level in decades this year. North Korea accused “aggressive” military drills in the South of driving “tension on the peninsula into an extreme phase, creating such danger that a nuclear war may break out any moment.”


by Gordon Arthur


A confluence of factors contributed to Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) histrionics, reminding the world that the Republic of Korea (ROK) must maintain a determined military stance against this unhinged regime. After all, Pyongyang has never lacked bellicosity, and the new unblooded 30-year-old leader appears intent on underscoring his credentials as a worthy commander. The DPRK launched a three-stage ‘rocket’ on 12th December 2012 and conducted a third nuclear-weapon test on 12th February 2013. United Nations condemnation drew an outburst, with the pariah state repudiating the 1953 Armistice Agreement (again!), refusing to answer the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) hotline, threatening to turn Seoul and Washington D.C. into a “sea of fire” and launch attacks on US bases in Guam and Japan.

Kim Jong-un obviously thought it an opportune time to test the mettle of his nemeses. The ROK inaugurated its first female president on 25th February 2013, while the US military is suffering as sequestration bites. The USA did not back down, deploying nuclear-capable Boeing B-52H bombers and a nuclear attack submarine to the peninsula, and promising to strengthen anti-missile defences in South Korea, Japan and Alaska. Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter sought to assuage South Korean fears, saying the USA would continue to provide “the extended deterrence offered by the US nuclear umbrella.” A DPRK nuclear strike is not the primary threat, but a small-scale provocation could quickly escalate as North Korea engages in its favourite pastime of brinkmanship.

Such machinations as the torpedoing of one of its corvettes in March 2010, and a deadly artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong Island the following November, demonstrated to South Korea that it cannot relax its guard, even momentarily. These events stunned the military establishment but also hardened resolve, resulting in Defence Reformation Plan 307 being released in March 2011. This plan restructured the unified military command and sought more sophisticated weaponry (e.g. early-warning systems and missile defences). New rules of engagement were issued, with the replacement defence minister promising air strikes if necessary.

This year’s renewed tension came against the backdrop of South Korea preparing to take over full wartime Operational Control (OPCON) of all military forces on the peninsula in December 2015 under the Strategic Alliance 2015 roadmap. This transfer was to occur in 2012 but the aforementioned incidents demonstrated the ROK military’s unpreparedness. The two allies implemented a Counter-Provocation Plan on 22nd March 2013, and while neither side revealed its content, US Forces Korea (USFK) commented, “The completed plan includes procedures for consultation and action to allow for a strong and decisive combined ROK-US response to North Korean provocations.”

In 2005, South Korea embarked on a comprehensive modernisation programme entitled Defence Reform 2020. It promised $150 billion over a twelve-year period but it was starting to lag because of funding shortages. However, the events of 2010 reinvigorated defence budgets, with 2013 expenditure peaking at $30.7 billion. While North Korea remains the dominant threat, there are also territorial disputes with Japan, and China’s rising military posture looms in the ROK’s peripheral vision.

Going ballistic

South Korea needs a long-range strike capability owing to North Korea’s expanding missile arsenal. The USA finally agreed last October that its ally could develop a 431 nautical mile (800 kilometre) range ballistic missile. The ROK already has an active missile development

programme, the 431nm (500km) range Hyunmoo-2B ballistic missile having been deployed since 2009.

Cruise missile assets including the LIG Nex1 ground-launched Hyunmoo-3A (431nm range) and Hyunmoo-3B (539nm/1,000km range). The 809nm (1,500km) range turbofan-powered Hyunmoo-3C land attack cruise missile (LACM) is believed to have been fielded this year, bringing all of North Korea and parts of China and Russia within range of its 450 kilogramme (990lb) warhead. Similar in capability to the Tomahawk, it is land-, air- or ship-launched. Also believed to have become operational this year is the supersonic ship-launched Haesong-2 cruise missile with a 431nm range.

South Korea has resisted US pressure to join the regional Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) shield. Instead, since 2006 the country has been developing the indigenous Korea Air and Missile Defence (KAMD) system due for completion in 2015. Key components include Lockheed Martin Aegis Combat Management System (CMS) equipped ‘KDX-III’ class destroyers, Israel Aerospace Industries-Elta Systems (IAI-Elta) EL/M-2080 Super Green Pine Block B early-warning radars and Raytheon MIM-104 Patriot Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs). The Air and Missile Defence Cell (AMD-Cell) control network integrating all the elements was due to begin operating in July 2013. Furthermore, the Ministry of National Defence (MND) is seeking Raytheon RIM-174 Standard Extended Range Active Missile SAMs for its KDX-III destroyers by 2016. South Korea has 48 older MIM-104D Patriot PAC-2 (Patriot Advanced Capability-2) GEM/T fire units purchased from Germany, and in April the MND approved a plan to upgrade to MIM-104F PAC-3 to improve the system’s interception rate.

Indigenous air defence missile systems are coming on stream. Russia’s Almaz Design Bureau helped Samsung Thales develop the medium-range KM-SAM (also called Cheongung) SAM with a 22nm (40km) range, and it began replacing Raytheon MIM-23 Hawk SAM batteries this year. In development is the Cheolmae 4-H interceptor missile that will provide an upper-tier capability with its 81nm (150km) range. Separately, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems has held advanced talks about selling the Iron Dome SAM system, but nothing concrete has emerged.

The ROK Armed Forces possess some 640,000 personnel, a figure dropping to 517,000 by the end of this decade. The country relies heavily on conscription, but the standard two-year service period decreases to 18 months next year.


The role of the ROK Army (RO’KA) has changed little since the 1953 ceasefire between North and South Korea as it remains aligned to stop a massive DPRK ground invasion. However, it is being enhanced by sophisticated new equipment. The tank fleet relies on 1,500 K1 and K1A1 Main Battle Tanks (MBT), with Hyundai Rotem awaiting production of the new 55-ton K2 MBT. South Korea wants 397 K2s but it is expensive thanks to wizardry such as an 120 milimetre (4.6-in) L/55 main gun with autoloader, missile approach warning system, Battlefield Management System (BMS) and Active Protection System (APS). Its induction has been delayed till March 2014 because of troubles integrating the 1,500hp Doosan DST engine and S&T Dynamics automatic transmission. Officials concede the first 100 vehicles will use imported MTU-890 engines and RENK transmissions.

The ROKA is cutting at least 20 of its 47 infantry divisions, but is beefing up the remainder with modern equipment. Doosan’s K21 infantry fighting vehicle was fielded in 2009, with an initial 466 examples ordered. In November 2012, South Korea selected Hyundai Rotem as preferred bidder to produce 600 wheeled armoured personnel carriers to give its infantry mobility similar to that of US Army Stryker brigades. The company will prepare six-wheel drive and eight-wheel drive prototypes, based on its existing KW1/KW2, with production running between 2016-20. The ROKA requires 1,100+ K9 self-propelled howitzers to help counteract DPRK numerical superiority in artillery, with several hundred already in service. A locally developed multiple-rocket launcher prototype with 43nm (80km) range is expected this year.

Army aviation is also being boosted. Deliveries of the first of 245 KUH-1 Surion helicopters from Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) commenced with the issue of ten to the Army Aviation School in May 2013. Destined for both the army and marines, this 8-tonne craft designed with Eurocopter help will replace the Bell UH-1H medium-lift utility helicopter in a variety of roles. Up to 270 light attack helicopters are required to replace MD Helicopters 500MD and Bell AH-1S Cobra craft, so a 5-tonne Korea Attack Helicopter (KAH) platform is to be developed from 2013-18 in conjunction with a foreign partner. This opened the way for the ROKA to buy heavier attack helicopters to achieve a high-low fleet. The MND will receive 36 Boeing AH-64E Block-III Apache Longbow helicopters from 2016-18. South Korea also has active Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) programmes.

LIG Nex1 is developing the Medium-Range Infantry Missile (MRIM), an anti-tank system due to enter service in 2015. In 2011 the country ordered Rafael Spike Non Line-Of-Sight missiles to defend the Yellow Sea islands, though they did not deploy until March 2013.

Air Force

The F-X Phase II programme signed in 2008 gave the ROK Air Force (ROKAF) 21 Boeing F-15K Slam Eagle fighters, adding to the 40 previously obtained. All were delivered by April 2012. The focus is now on Phase III, South Korea’s largest arms import to date, which will replace geriatric McDonnell Douglas F-4D/E and F-5A/Bs with 60 new fighters from 2016-21. The three contenders were the F-15 Silent Eagle (F-15SE), Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning-II Joint Strike Fighter and Eurofighter Typhoon, but a new round of bidding opened on 2nd July 2013 because prices for all three were above South Korea’s threshold.

Simultaneously, South Korea is developing a next-generation stealthy fighter to replace its Lockheed Martin F-16C/D fleet. Indonesia is financing 20% of costs and will receive 50 KF-X fighters while 200 will go to South Korea. To date, a scale model has been exhibited, a 4.5-generation design more advanced than an F-16C but less so than an F-35. The technology development phase concluded in December 2012 but the engineering and manufacturing phase has been delayed 18 months as South Korea’s new political administration contemplates the KF-X’s viability.

Last year, South Korea selected BAE Systems as preferred bidder to upgrade 134 F-16C/Ds. In April 2013 it opted for Raytheon’s RACR Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar to be installed. The first ten AESA sets are to be delivered in 2016. Influenced by American refusal to sell the Lockheed Martin AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Stand-off Missile, in June the MND confirmed it would acquire the Taurus KEPD 350 for a longstanding requirement for an F-15K standoff missile.

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