Although growing interaction with North Korea seems to offer long awaited detante, it is still too early for the South Korean government to slow any of its military modernisation programmes.
For nearly 70 years since its respective services were formed, the armed forces of the Republic of Korea (RoK), better known as South Korea, has stood sentinel against the threat posed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, which invaded its southern neighbour in June 1950 with the covert support of Russia (then the Soviet Union) and China. It was ultimately stopped by the United States-led intervention of the United Nations.
Open warfare ended on 27 July 1953, when an armistice was signed. The truce created the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) to separate North and South Korea, and allowed the return of prisoners. However, the two Koreas remain technically at war, engaged in a frozen conflict that saw tensions surge on numerous occasions, such as the 2010 sinking of the South Korean Po Hang-class corvette RoKS Cheonan which exploded and sank off Baengnyeong Island near the disputed Northern Limit Line (NLL), with 46 of the 104-person crew killed. The incident was blamed by South Korean investigators on a Korean People’s Navy (KPN) CHT-02D torpedo attack, although North Korea has refuted this claim.
According to the South Korean Ministry of National Defence’s (MND’s) latest Defence White Paper released in 2014, the present Korean People’s Army (KPA) is believed to be maintaining an inventory of approximately 4,300 tanks and 2,500 wheeled and tracked armoured vehicles of varying types and tonnages, although many of these are possibly unserviceable or operating at reduced capacities.
The MND also noted that the KPA maintains 70 percent of its forces south of the Pyongyang-Wonsan line, a posture that enables it to conduct a surprise attack at short notice. While the capabilities and readiness of the KPA’s land combat platforms may be debatable, vehicles attacking southwards would be preceded by deep fires from 8,500 artillery pieces and 5,100 multiple rocket launchers (MRLs), the majority of which are forward deployed in fortified underground emplacements.
The Republic of Korea Army (RoKA) is South Korea’s largest military service and has primary responsibility for defending the country from the north. Established in 1945 by US forces occupying the southern half of the Korean Peninsula, the RoKA was initially configured as nine lightly armed infantry regiments with a total manpower of around 50,000 troops close to the outbreak of the Korean War.
However, the DPRK invasion nevertheless exposed the fledgling RoKA’s deficiencies against a conventional invasion, with a lack of anti-armour capabilities that were necessary to deal with the Soviet-made T-34/85 tanks and SU-76 self-propelled guns operated by the Korean People’s Army (KPA). As a consequence, the RoKA was routed southwards towards the port town of Busan.
Learning from that bitter experience, the contemporary RoKA has adopted a force structure and utilises equipment comparable to those of the US Army – a reflection of the heavy infusions of US training and equipment, combined with large-scale joint planning and training exercises for combat operations.
The decades of transformation and modernisation, combined with South Korea’s alliance with the United States, has largely negated the vast numerical and artillery advantages of the otherwise qualitatively inferior KPA.
Moreover, the 1990-91 Gulf War provided South Korea with valuable insights on how emerging technologies have enabled fast paced, information-based combined arms battlefield doctrines. With a robust economy vis-à-vis the growing belligerence of North Korea over the past decade, the country has embarked on a wide-ranging modernisation programme that has seen the RoK armed forces benefit from the acquisition of new weapons, aircraft and systems that have significantly improved battlefield mobility and lethality, as well as operational command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I).
According to the MHD’s White Paper: ”The ground forces will acquire manoeuvre and strike capabilities to conduct offensive manoeuvre warfare. As the operational area of responsibility of each unit expands, manoeuvre, fire, protection, and precision-strike capabilities will be improved, and an automated combat system will be acquired. The present RoKA is understood to field 41 divisions and 15 separate brigades organised into 11 corps, and is equipped with around 2,400 main battle tanks (MBTs), 2,600 armoured personnel carriers (AFVs) and infantry fighting vehicles and 5,180 pieces of field artillery.
At the forefront of its forces is the latest Hyundai Rotem K2 MBT, which entered production in 2008 following 13 years of development under the XK2 development programme. The 56 ton K2 is armed with a 120mm L55 smoothbore gun that has been fitted with a dynamic muzzle reference system, thermal sleeve, and fume extractor. The weapon offers a significant increase in effective combat range when compared with the shorter 120mm L44 gun installed in the earlier K1/K1A1 MBTs in service since the late 1980s, while an advanced fire-control system with automatic target detection and tracking system enables the K2’s crew to identify enemy vehicles at longer distances and engage them accurately.
Recent developments are improving overall RoKA operational effectiveness in the near term. These include converting infantry formations into mechanised forces with significantly enhanced mobility and firepower. To achieve this goal, its mechanised infantry forces will also be boosted with the new Hyundai Rotem 6×6 K806 and 8×8 K808 wheeled armoured vehicles (WAVs). Up to 100 K806 and 500 K808 WAVs are expected to be fielded.
Both the 16 ton K806 and 20 ton K808 will be operated by a two-person crew with accommodation for up to nine fully equipped troops, and share many of the same performance characteristics given that major mechanical components such as the engine – a 420hp Hyundai Motor Company diesel engine that provides a maximum road speed of 100km/h – and transmission are employed in both vehicles. The K806 is aimed at operating in the rear echelon for defending military facilities, transporting passengers and protecting logistics convoys, while the K808 will conduct high-intensity combat operations in front-line areas alongside K1A1 and K2 MBTs.
Republic of Korea Navy (RoKN)
Similarly, the Republic of Korea Navy (RoKN) is rapidly acquiring a range of high-end naval capabilities aimed at improving its ability to conduct amphibious, anti-submarine, precision strike, and ballistic missile defence (BMD) operations through the fielding of several classes of new surface combatants and submarines – with the goal of securing its growing economic and political interests in the region as well as countering the asymmetric threats posed by the KPN in the extensive littoral areas of the peninsula closer to home.
With its ability to manoeuvre along the Yellow Sea to the west and the Sea of Japan to the East, the RoKN must be prepared to execute multiple complex missions before, during, and after the outbreak of general hostilities with North Korea, such as delivering precision strikes on key targets deep in North Korea using submarine and surface warship-launched land-attack cruise missiles, and countering the KPN’s East and West Fleets, which operate naval assets including nearly 300 fast attack craft with some of these missile-carrying platforms, around 50 midget and diesel-electric submarines, and even a ballistic missile submarine.
Although most of its combatants are struggling with obsolescence issues and rarely venture beyond coastal waters, the RoKS Cheonan incident demonstrated the willingness of the North Korean regime to employ deadly force will little to no warning. As a result, the RoKN is expected to contain or destroy its counterpart’s attack submarine force and its sole Gorae-class ballistic missile submarine; defend itself against fast craft attacks while blockading the entire North Korean coast; as well as have the potential to perform amphibious operations on both coasts to insert large RoK Marine Corps, RoKA and US Army forces into North Korea above the 38th parallel.
In the past decade, the RoKN has steadily increased its surface combat capability with new Incheon-class (FFX) frigates, with plans to operate up to 20 of these vessels in three progressively improved batches by 2028. The service will also benefit from 18 new PKX-A missile boats, as well as 16 PKX-B Batch 1 and 18 PKX-B Batch 2 patrol boats, which are replacing its Chamsuri and Gumdoksuri-class patrol vessels.
The service’s largest and most capable surface combat capabilities currently reside in its three KDX-3 guided-missile destroyers, which are equipped with the Aegis Combat System comprising Lockheed Martin’s SPY-1 multifunction radar and paired with the MK 41 vertical launching system. The first KDX-3 destroyer, RoKS Sejong Daewang, was built and tested by Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) in Ulsan and commissioned in Busan in November 2008. The second and third KDX-3 platforms, RoKS Yulgok YiI and RoKS Seoae Ryu Seong-ryong, were commissioned in August 2010 and 2012 respectively.
The Aegis combat system can detect and track any flying objects within 1,000km, can simultaneously track up to 900 targets within 500km, and can intercept any target within 170km. KDX-3 weapon systems include SM-2 fleet air defence missiles, SSM-700K Haeseong (Sea Star) long-range anti-ship cruise missiles, Hongsangeo (Red Shark) long-range anti-submarine torpedoes, and Chungsangeo (Blue Shark) light torpedoes. RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) short-range anti-air missiles and Phalanx close-in weapon systems (CIWS) defend the ships against incoming missile threats. Each vessel is manned by 300 crew members and carries two anti-submarine helicopters.
Although South Korea intended to acquire only three KDX-3 destroyers, continued provocations by North Korea and mounting regional uncertainties prompted the country to procure three more KDX-3 platforms to create an integrated network of two or more Aegis-equipped destroyers in the Yellow Sea and Sea of Japan. In late 2013 an order for a second batch of three KDX-3s was confirmed by the navy and approved by the government with the ships expected to enter service around 2023 to 2027.
The RoKN established a new submarine command in 2015 to improve coordination of its growing submarine capability, which comprise the indigenously constructed Chang Bogo-class diesel-electric attack submarines based on the German Type 209/1200 design and the more recent KSS-2 attack submarines based on the Type 214 design. There will eventually be nine KSS-2s in service, to be followed from 2020 by up to nine 3,000-tonne KSS-3 submarines. Current plans also call for a modernised midget submarine force to replace its ageing Dolgorae (Dolphin)-class midget submarines with HHI’s larger and more capable KSS-500A platform.
The introduction of the helicopter-capable landing ship dock RoKS Dokdo in July 2007 provided a significant boost to the RoKN’s amphibious capabilities. With a troop carrying capacity of 700 marines, 10 helicopters, two high-speed air-cushioned landing craft, and 10 MBTs), Dokdo is capable of undertaking a wide spectrum of missions, including disaster response, international peacekeeping, and special operations forces (SOF) support. Up to three of these vessels could be in service by the 2020s to operate alongside new landing ship tank (LST) platforms.
Republic of Korea Air Force
The Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF), known locally as Han-Guk Kong Goon, is a well-trained and powerful organisation that is recognised to be one of the best equipped and trained air forces in the Asia Pacific, if not the world. RoKAF modernisation is focused on developing world-class, independent operational capabilities, including long-range precision strike and advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) in addition to enabling rapid response to threats originating from within the Korean peninsula and beyond.
The RoKAF presently operates approximately 800 aircraft, including around 450 tactical platforms and a national air defence system with an extensive network of radars and surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites, comprising army-operated Raytheon Patriot Advanced Capability-2 (PAC-2) missiles brought up to the Guidance Enhanced Missile-TBM (GEM-T) standard for improved BMD performance, with new PAC-3s systems expected to be deployed in 2018.
The backbone of the RoKAF’s combat power currently resides in around 170 Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Block 50/52 Fighting Falcon multirole fighters and 60 Boeing F-15K Slam Eagle strike fighters, although it still operates a number of ageing McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II and Northrop Grumman F-5E Tiger II fighters. Lockheed Martin was awarded a $1.2 billion contract in November 2016 to upgrade 134 F-16 fighters – known as KF-16 in RoKAF service – by 15 November 2025, following the cancellation of a similar deal with BAE Systems in November 2014 after a dispute over costs.
The RoKAF is also rapidly gaining new capabilities with the acquisition of the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the first of which was rolled out at the company’s Fort Worth manufacturing facility in March 2018. South Korea had committed to a buy of 40 JSFs in March 2014 in a deal worth $6.8 billion (KRW 7.3 trillion) under Phase III of its F-X next-generation fighter programme, which will also see Lockheed Martin transfer core technologies – including advanced materials, avionics, flight control techniques, and systems integration – under a defence offset programme attached to the deal to support development of its indigenous Korean Fighter Experimental (KFX) aircraft.
The process of replacing the service’s ageing F-5E Tiger II fighters with 60 Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) FA-50 Golden Eagle light attack aircraft is in progress, with additional orders expected to increase the number to over 100 platforms.
Strike capabilities have likewise received a significant boost in recent years, with the introduction of the stealthy and long-range MBDA Taurus KEPD 350K air-launched stand-off cruise missiles, with a company-stated range of over 500km, on-board the F-15K Slam Eagles. An initial batch of the missiles were acquired in November 2013, with an additional batch announced in March 2018.
The 1,400kg missile is specifically designed for use against hardened and buried targets and is armed with a 1,000kg Multi-Effect Penetrator Highly Sophisticated and Target Optimised (MEPHISTO) penetrator warhead. The weapon is guided using a combination of inertial navigation systems (INS) aided by GPS, a radar mapping altimeter and an imaging infrared (IIR) seeker.
“If armed with the Taurus missile, the [aircraft] can hit North Korea’s capital city of Pyongyang while flying over Daejeon, 164km south of Seoul,” military officials told local media, and also noted that the F-15Ks could launch a Taurus munition over the Sea of Japan to destroy hardened and deeply buried targets such as aircraft on the ground, bridges, bunkers, caves, runways, shelters, surface-to-air-missile sites, as well as ships in port.
by JR Ng