With its T-50 Golden Eagle, South Korea joined a select club of nations to have successfully developed a supersonic aircraft. Quite apart from breaking the sound barrier, South Korea is hoping to also break into new export markets with its advanced jet trainer. This article looks at the growing maturity of the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) aerospace industry, with a particular emphasis on specific platforms it is pinning its domestic and international hopes on. The remarkable growth of South Korea’s aerospace industry can be observed in the statistic that the 7,800 workers employed in this field in 2007 had burgeoned to 10,000+ just three years later.
6th Sep 2011
The South Korean military has suffered demoralising setbacks in recent months at the hands of the North Korean dictatorship. In March 2010 the sinking of ROKS Cheonan and the loss of 46 sailors by a submarine-fired torpedo was the first in the list. In November, North Korea unveiled a modern uranium enrichment plant that could supply bomb-making material. This was followed by an artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong Island that killed two civilians and two Marines on 27 January 2011.
President Lee Myung-bak subsequently dismissed both the defence minister and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Seared by public criticism, the Ministry of National Defence (MND) released “Defence Reformation Plan 307” on 8 March 2011. This document shakes up the tri-service structure to better respond to Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) activities. It also accelerates acquisition of new hardware such as artillery-detecting radar systems, new fighters, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and (despite American disapproval) long-range precision-guided cruise missiles suitable for targeting DPRK nuclear and weapon facilities. Incoming Defence Minister Kim Kwan-jin issued new rules of engagement and promised retaliation against future provocations, with airstrikes if necessary - which is a significant departure from the South’s previous policy of proportionate response.
This article offers an overview of airpower in the Republic of Korea (ROK) Armed Forces, and the content should be read in conjunction with the following article that focuses on the impressive expansion of South Korea’s aerospace industry. North Korea has amassed soldiers and military hardware near the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), and South Korea cannot relax its vigilance for one moment. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS) Released in 2005, the “Defence Reform 2020” plan promising USD150 billion of expenditure over a twelve-year period had stalled somewhat. However, the aforementioned DPRK incitements resulted in a USD27.3 billion defence budget allocation for 2011, a 6.2% hike compared to just 2% growth a year earlier.
The ROK Air Force (ROKAF) has a key role in protecting the nation against DPRK provocation and invasion, which is reflected in the fact that manpower levels will remain static at 65,000 until 2020. There is little doubt the ROKAF possesses superior equipment to North Korea, but this does not necessarily translate into regional air superiority. North Korea is well protected by a dense air defence network, while nearby China is developing the J-20 stealth fighter and Japan is seeking the F-35.
Faced with the DPRK threat, as well as East Asia’s emerging security paradigm that owes much to China’s massive military build-up, the ROKAF is seeking to enhance its capabilities. Its goal of modernisation can be described in seven primary objectives:
1. Diversify the force to enable effective responses against a variety of threats;
2. Attain long-range strike capabilities to contain the DPRK threat;
3. Improve early warnings against surprise attacks;
4. Develop wide-area airspace control;
5. Modernise ground-based air defence;
6. Increase the survivability of radar and air defence sites via mobile systems;
7. Enhance tactical airlift.
The extensive ROKAF combat fleet includes some 70 F-4D/E Phantom II and 150 F-5E Tiger II fighters that are in need of replacement. In terms of more modern fighters, the force is made up of KF-16C/D Fighting Falcons at the lower tier and F-15K Slam Eagles at the high end. Use of the F-16 and F-15 offers convenient interoperability and training advantages with the US Air Force (USAF) that has resident squadrons on the peninsular. The F-16s were hastily purchased from 1981 onwards under a Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme known as Peace Bridge, intended to counter DPRK numerical superiority. A total of 180 F-16C/D aircraft were ordered, of which most were Block 52 versions. Many were assembled locally by Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI).
The MND wishes to update KF-16 radar and avionics via an upgrade programme that was announced in May 2009, although tension exists between what is desirable and what is affordable. Active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar options include the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-80 or Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR), and the Raytheon Advanced Combat Radar (RACR). Alternatively, the Elta EL/M-2032 radar is also a possibility since it will be installed in Korea’s FA-50 light-attack aircraft. The installation of MIL-STD-1760 data buses and upgraded software will allow carriage of GPS-guided weapons such as the GBU-31 JDAM, something KF-16s achieved earlier this year.
Lockheed Martin assisted KAI to develop the T-50 Golden Eagle, with 50 T-50 advanced trainers already in service, and 22 TA-50 dual-purpose advanced trainer/light-attack variants ordered. KAI is currently working on the FA-50 dedicated light-attack version that will reinforce the KF-16 fleet. For more details about the genesis of the T-50, readers may refer to the following article. There are also requirements for electronic attack (EA-50) and reconnaissance (RA-50) variants.
To gain 120 advanced fighter platforms by 2020, South Korea launched the ambitious Next Fighter (F-X) programme. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS) Phase I saw Boeing’s F-15K beat off challenges from the Rafale, Typhoon and Su-35 in 2002. Seoul ordered 40 multi-role F-15K Slam Eagle fighters with deliveries occurring from 2005-08. The F-15K is an advanced version of the F-15E, and it is expected to serve until 2040.
As sole bidder, Boeing won F-X Phase II for a further 21 F-15Ks in April 2008 . The most recent handover of three aircraft occurred on 20 August 2011, leaving just eight more to be delivered by April next year. This second tranche is notable in being powered by Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-229 engines instead of General Electric jets, thus providing commonality with the KF-16 fleet. Boeing’s contract has involved considerable work-sharing under offset obligations. Samsung Techwin, for example, builds the engines under license.
The F-15K is fitted with the AN/APG-63(V)1 mechanical scanned array radar, but thanks to its common digital-processing back-end, it could easily be exchanged for an AESA system in the future. Northrop Grumman started delivering 21 AN/ALQ-135M electronic countermeasure systems in February 2010, while Lockheed Martin is concurrently fulfilling an order for 17 AN/AAQ-33 Sniper Advanced Targeting Pods. Most F-15Ks are deployed in the southeast, far from the reach of DPRK artillery but within easy range of any target on the peninsular.
The air force also wants long-range standoff cruise missiles so that its fighters can target North Korea’s most heavily defended targets. A request for proposals (RFP) was issued in June with contenders including the Boeing SLAM-ER, Lockheed Martin AGM-158 JASSM/JASSM-ER, MBDA Storm Shadow, Taurus KEPD-350 and Raytheon JSOW-ER.
As part of F-X Phase III, South Korea closely examined its requirement for 60 multi-role fighters possessing advanced radar-evading stealth. Over time, expectations and requirements have experienced twists and turns. The key question was whether the aircraft would be a variation of something the ROKAF already operates, or a completely new design of domestic or international origin. The Defence Acquisition and Procurement Agency (DAPA) envisioned a brand new indigenous design, but studies completed in 2007 concluded such a project was prohibitively expensive. Indigenous development would cost at least USD10 billion, but earn only USD3 billion in economic benefits.
Under pressure as a consequence of DPRK belligerence, the government is speeding up its acquisition of fighters. DAPA announced an RFP worth USD9 billion for up to 60 F-X III stealth fighters would be issued in December 2011. A selection decision will be made before October 2012, with the first fighters to be inducted from 2016 onwards. At present, four contenders are shaping up for this lucrative Phase III contract. Boeing will be bidding with its F-15 Silent Eagle (F-15SE), an aircraft with limited stealth function that had its maiden flight in July last year. In anticipation, Boeing has already obtained an export license for the F-15SE in case Seoul opts for it. Lockheed Martin will offer the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), of which it displayed a full-scale replica at the 2009 Seoul Air Show. Delivery delays are probably its greatest handicap, with numerous countries already first in line to receive their allotted production. Furthermore, the multinational F-35 programme would not give Seoul the boost to its domestic aerospace sector that it wants. The Typhoon will be a strong contender too, and Eurofighter could dangle the prospect of high levels of transfer of technology (ToT). The fourth competitor is Sukhoi’s T-50 PAK-FA, which is still undergoing development. The inclusion of an AESA radar system seems a given for this high-end off-the-shelf procurement. In the past South Korea has stuck with American aircraft, so it remains to be seen whether it breaks with tradition under F-X III.
DAPA’s original plan to produce a fifth-generation stealth aircraft in the league of the F-35 may have been a pipe dream, but something of its ambition remains in the KF-X next-generation fighter programme. In January 2010 it was announced South Korea would jointly develop the new fighter, the downgraded and more pragmatic goal now being an indigenous fighter in the advanced F-16 or Chinese J-10 class. The government has repeatedly baulked at the estimated USD8 billion development price tag of the KF-X, so Seoul was seeking an international consortium that would act as a risk and revenue sharing partner (RSP). It is known Turkey was considered a potential partner at one stage.
However, further project definition occurred on 15 June 2010 when the Agency for Defence Development (ADD) signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Indonesia, which outlined the latter’s commitment to share 20% of KF-X programme costs. They were seeking production of 150-200 aircraft, with 50 to go to Indonesia. Confirmation of a deal occurred in July this year. A KF-X research centre with 100 Korean and 30 Indonesian technicians has been established in Daejeon. The KF-X is to be inducted around the 2018 mark, which seems an optimistic date. This agreement further strengthens ROK-Indonesian ties, with the latter already agreeing to buy 16 T-50I Golden Eagles. It will also provide a major boost to Indonesia’s aerospace industry.
South Korea has long recognised the need to improve its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability, not only for monitoring North Korea, but also for keeping tabs on the region. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS) Possessing an advanced ISR capacity that is independent of the USA is crucial if the country is to assume responsibility for full operational control (OPCON). Although the E-X airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) programme was launched way back in 1996, a USD1.59 million contract for four Boeing 737-700-based aircraft was not signed until 27 November 2006. The E-737 has a multirole electronically scanned array (MESA) radar system from Northrop Grumman in a configuration similar to that of Australia’s Wedgetail. The radar can scan 360º and track up to 3,000 targets within a 370km range. Even North Korea’s low-tech “stealth” An-2 biplanes that have timber propellers and canvas-covered wings are detectable.
Under a Transfer of Technology agreement, KAI technicians worked at Boeing’s Seattle factory from early 2009 onwards. The first E-737 AEW&C was delivered to the ROKAF for acceptance testing on 1 August this year. KAI commenced modifications of the second E-737 aircraft in Sacheon, South Korea, in February last year as part of the offset programme. Each of the three E-737s contracted under the Peace Eye programme will be delivered in six-month increments through till the end of 2012.
To improve ISR collection further, the ROK government had previously requested the USA sell up to four RQ-4B Global Hawks. Spurred by DPRK attacks, Defence Minister Kim Kwan-jin reasserted this desire on 8 March. A preliminary deal could be signed at the end of 2011 for first deliveries in 2014. The MND has already allocated an initial USD40.4 billion in its budget, and there could be potential spinoffs for South Korean companies chosen to provide technical support and maintenance.
Another item South Korea requires is an aerial refuelling aircraft, which would improve fighter range and loiter time. A ROKAF spokesman said F-15Ks and KF-16s would begin regular air-to-air refuelling drills with the USAF later this year. A contract for aerial refuelling aircraft would surely be of interest to both Boeing and Airbus, but such a procurement is unlikely to appear on the shopping list until at least 2014. On the other hand, the ROKAF has ordered four C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft for delivery in 2014. With 250 troops redeploying to Afghanistan in late 2010, and a destroyer stationed in the Gulf of Aden, augmentation of the ROKAF’s airlift capability is important.
KAI also upgraded eight ex-US P-3CK Orion aircraft for the ROK Navy (ROKN), with these platforms having an important maritime patrol function in light of North Korea’s mini-submarine attack. The final upgraded Orion was delivered on 5 October 2010, with Samsung Thales providing the radar.
The ROK Army (ROKA) operates ageing fleets of AH-1S Cobra and MD500 helicopters, and the Korean Attack Helicopter (KAH) programme intends to find up to 270 suitable replacement craft. At the last Seoul Air Show, KAI displayed conceptual models of two different KAH configurations based on the Surion Korean Utility Helicopter (KUH). One was a tandem-seat design sharing 70% of KUH components, while a dedicated attack helicopter with narrower fuselage had 60% of components in common.
However, DAPA announced in April 2011 it is seeking the urgent acquisition of 36 foreign-manufactured heavy attack helicopters, with a decision on the exact model to be made by October 2012 and deliveries to commence the following year. The Boeing AH-64D Apache must be seen as the frontrunner for this off-the-shelf requirement. Technology absorption from such a heavyweight attack helicopter is expected to flow directly into the domestic KAH programme, which will now focus on a lighter airframe. This means the larger KUH airframe is unsuited as a donor because of its size and weight. The armed indigenous KAH will be in the 5-ton class, and as with the KUH, it will rely heavily on international cooperation. It will remain at the feasibility study level until 2012 when operational requirements will be reissued.
For a long time Seoul has depended heavily on the USA for security. While it still draws strength from the presence of 28,500 American troops stationed on its soil, South Korea’s own capabilities are certainly growing. This competence will become more pronounced as new aircraft and helicopters are inducted. Although South Korea may be growing in confidence, it has not yet reached a point of full self-assurance, as indicated by the minimum 3.5-year delay in transfer of wartime OPCON on the Korean peninsular.