The Republic of Korea’s (ROK) armed forces trace their origin to 1948. The force was born on the battlefields of the Korean War of 1950 to 1953. Since the 1953 ceasefire the ROK has been building what is acknowledged to be one of the world’s best trained and equipped militaries.
Beyond this the country and its military have pursued an economic and defence policy hand in hand that together have seen it evolve into a leading developer and growing supplier of the most advanced weapons, platforms and subsystems for land, air and naval use. Despite the threat from its northern Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) northern neighbour, the ROK has become a regional power with intent to take on a larger global role.
The ROK’s President Moon Jae-in, elected in May, has laid out a direction for defence emphasising self-reliance with priority given to modernising and transforming the ROK armed forces. The Defence Reform Plan 2020 (DRP-2020) was actually initiated in 2006 by then President Roh Moo-hyun when current President Moon served as his chief of staff. The key tenet of DRP-2020 is to transform the ROK military into a smaller, yet more capable, force. It places increased emphasis on more capable equipment and greater application of manoeuvre and technology. An objective of the reform is a new strategic approach to the DPRK, as well as for a larger international engagement by the ROK and its military. The former is the adoption of a new doctrine of “Proactive Deterrence” that provides for “prompt, focused and proportional retaliation against (DPRK) attacks”. It is intended that the assurance of active response will cause the DPRK’s leadership to reconsider aggressive actions.
For the military itself the reform restructures the armed force’s command with an emphasis on unified and joint force operations. This is particularly appropriate with the country’s greater participation in global peacekeeping and its subsequent expanded worldwide presence. On the defence equipment side the ROK’s programmes continue to be characterised by two paths; first providing progressive improvement in designs optimised to their environment and secondly seeking to increase domestic sourcing and industrial capability. In nearly every domain the ROK has taken steps to move towards greater self sufficiency. To achieve this the ROK’s military equipment developer, the Defence Acquisition Programme Administration (DAPA) has stressed collaboration with companies with proven records in fields from armoured vehicles to aircraft and licence production. The objective is to build domestic technical expertise and local production capacity. These decades-long efforts but have seen fruition in the last few years with not only the fielding of ROK developed and manufactured equipment to its own forces but increasing export success.
At just above 400,000 soldiers, the ROK Army (ROKA) is by far the largest service, though also it relies on a substantial reserve force. Reforms for the ROKA have focused on reducing the number of divisions to 28 (from 47) and the reorganisation and reequipping of the force with a focus on manoeuvre and enhanced firepower. The number of infantry divisions is being reduced with some converted to mechanised formations while also improving the response capabilities of the armoured divisions. To this end the army has for the former developed and will begin in 2018 fielding of the locally-developed Hyundai Rotem KW1 six-wheel and eight-wheel drive armoured vehicles. These provide protected mobility to the infantry allowing rapid exploitation of tactical opportunities and to enforce security in areas under army control. Similarly towed artillery is being converted to self-propelled by mounting its Rock Island Arsenal M-101 105mm howitzers onto modified Kia KM-500 trucks. Samsung Techwin is performing the conversion and a purchase of 800 EVO-105s (as the conversion will be known) will commence delivery this year.
ROKA armoured divisions are benefiting from the collaboration between the ROK Agency for Defence Development, General Dynamics and Hyundai that saw the development and introduction of the locally manufactured K1 Main Battle Tank. Based on the General Dynamics M1 Abrams family MBT, the K1 has a number of changes for the ROKA including use of an MTU diesel engine licence produced in Korea; Krauss-Maffei Wegmann Leopard-2 MBT family derived fire controls, and a hydro-pneumatic suspension. Over 1000 have been produced since 1985. This work has allowed the ROK to perfect its own MBT design, in the form of the Hyundai Rotem K-2 Black Panther; one of the most advanced MBTs in the world. All subsystems of the K-2 are of Korean origin or manufactured locally under licence. It includes active protection, reactive armour, and the KSTAM (Korean Smart Top-Attack Munition) gun precision projectile allowing attack of targets in defilade. The K-2 entered production in 2016.
The Army’s Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) and subsequent Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV) programmes have also led to self sufficiency. Initially its APCs were US designed United Defence/BAE Systems M-113 family tracked platforms. The following Daewoo K-200 KIFV (Korean Infantry Fighting Vehicle) was based on the M-113 automotive platform but with a licence-built MAN engine and Allison transmission. Over 2380 were produced including its first military export success in the form of the K-200A1 for Malaysia. In 1999 a successor vehicle developed specifically for the ROK’s needs was initiated in the form of the Hanwha K-21 which commenced fielding in 2009 and around 450 K300s are to be fielded in the ROKA’s armoured units.
The army has taken a similar approach toward its self-propelled artillery initially employing the United Defence/BAE Systems M-109 family, and then introducing its entirely local design the Samsung K-9 Thunder. Coupled with its companion K-10 Ammunition Resupply Vehicle, it is capable of both responding to DPRK artillery attacks, supporting ground action by the ROKA and survive and remaining effective in the high intensity bombardments anticipated in combat should it occur. Over 1200 Thunders are planned to be delivered by 2019, with exports also occurring to Estonia, Finland, India, Norway and Poland.
The ROK Navy, focused for seventy years on countering its northern counterpart, has been moving towards a “blue water” capability and is well on its way to achieving its 2020 goal of deploying two or three rapid response fleets. Most of its former US-acquired vessels have been replaced by state-of-the-art indigenously designed and manufactured ships. Reflecting its coastal defence mission the navy still has over 87 corvettes and patrol boats of up to 950-tonnes displacement including the ‘Geomdoksuri’ class patrol craft.
The navy has made considerable advances in capital ships with the commissioning of not simply frigates and destroyers but also amphibious assault ships and conventional hunter-killer submarines (SSKs). In fact, in August 2017 a navy spokesperson indicated that the ROK intended to study the feasibility of building its own nuclear powered submarines. These could be added to its current fleet of ‘Sohn Won-yil’ and ‘Chang Bogo’ class SSKs. On the surface side the six ‘Chungmugong Yi Sunsin’ class destroyers fielded from 2003 to 2008 have helped lead the way toward the blue water goal. They have been joined by three 7500-ton ‘Sejong the Great’ class destroyers equipped with the Lockheed Martin Aegis combat management system, and the additional three that have been ordered could offer an ballistic missile defence capability.
The growing amphibious fleet and expansion of its capabilities to include an aircraft carrier best reflect the navy’s commitment to building a multi-ocean presence. The ROK Navy’s ‘Dokdo’ class can operate five aircraft from its flight deck, and has hanger space for up to ten. The vessel’s flight deck can also accept short take-off/vertical landing aircraft like the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning-II, although the ROK is currently scheduled to field only the F-35A conventional variant. The ‘Dokdo’ class can also embark 750 Marines plus supporting tanks, vehicles and artillery along with landing craft. A second example, the ROKS Marado is under construction and should join the fleet in 2020. Often overlooked but a critical component for achieving a blue water capability are fast replenishment vessels which can accompany, re-supply and refuel the fleet outside home waters. The ‘Soyang’ class has been commissioned by the ROK Navy for exactly this role. The ship will be the second-largest in the fleet and is capable of carrying 11050 tons of stores. Launched in November 2016 it will become operational in 2018.
Formed during the Korean War, the majority of current ROK Air Force (ROKAF) aircraft had been acquired from the United States, or more recently built under licence. A commitment has been made for the F-35A for initial delivery in 2018 and an indigenous development, likely in collaboration with an international aerospace partner, is being planned to replace the ROKAF’s legacy McDonnell Douglas F-4 fighter family. It is also increasing its numbers of the Korea Aerospace Industries’ (KAI) T-50 indigenous supersonic aircraft that entered active service in 2005 primarily as a trainer. Yet, the T-50 with an eye on the possibility of combat, is readily configured for light attack and has been sold as the FA-50 to this end.
The ROK Army has a sizable air arm with both transport and attack helicopters. These include Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk family medium-lift utility helicopters, MD Helicopters MD-500 family light utility helicopters and the locally-produced KAI KUH-1 Surion family medium-lift utility helicopter and KAH (Korean Attack Helicopter). The KAH is scheduled for fielding in 2022, however, the Army also ordered 36 Boeing AH-64E Guardian attack helicopters which have all been fielded as of January 2017. Naval aviation is also embarked on a modernisation with particular emphasis on maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare. In December 2016 it received the last four of its eight AgustaWestland/Leonardo AW-159 maritime support helicopters, In addition, the navy announced in September 2016 its intent to acquire twelve Lockheed Martin S-3 Viking family Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) to complement the current fleet of Lockheed Martin P-3C Orion MPAs.
Air and Missile Defence
The ROK’s has a three-tier anti-air and missile defence capability with air defence being a separate branch within the ROKAF. An ambitious effort is underway to establish an integrated land-sea-air detection and engagement network, known as the Korean Air and Missile Defense System (KAMD). This will also counter incoming DPRK ballistic missiles, including short-range ballistic missiles. The next step could utilize technology from Russia’s Almaz-Antey S-400 semi-active/active radar homing surface-to-air missile technology. The technology transfer is compensation for ROK’s $1.5 billion of loans to Russia in 1991.
The ROK Marine Corps (ROKMC) is, since 2011, a separate branch of the armed forces. Its two divisions, two separate brigades and the Yeonpyeongdo island garrison are primarily infantry but include K-9 self propelled artillery, K-1 MBTs, BAE Systems KAAV7A1 tracked amphibious vehicles, and complements of engineers, reconnaissance, and support units. The ROKMC is increasingly focused on defence of the northern islands, providing a rapid response capability, and a strategic deployment force. The ROKMC began in 2017 constituting an aviation group of two assault and one attack helicopter battalions. In March 2016 it was also directed that a Marine Regiment would be able to respond to an event in any location in the country within 24 hours.
The ROK armed forces are moving from reaction to deterrent. This change in strategy is is reflected in the public video in August of test-firings of short range ballistic missiles with improved warheads. Coupled with its conventional force modernisation the armed forces have enhanced its abilities to adapt to future challenges.