December 14, 2022
SEOUL – South Korea is developing homegrown combat weapons, defense and surveillance systems to enhance the military’s deterrence and readiness posture against mounting and persisting North Korean threats, the head of South Korea’s state arms procurement agency told The Korea Herald.
The expeditious completion of the homegrown three-axis defense system — which consists of the Kill Chain preemptive strike mechanism, the Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) and the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR) — is essential to that end, he said.
“The government plans to push ahead with 250 discrete tasks, including the development of weapons systems and defense technologies, next year to secure capabilities for the indigenous three-axis defense system to strengthen the South Korean military’s capabilities to counter escalating nuclear and missile threats from North Korea,” Eom Dong-hwan, minister of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), said in an interview.
South Korea has specifically sought to build a multilayered missile defense shield to complete the KAMD as North Korea has developed more survivable and maneuverable ballistic missiles, including KN-23, KN-24, and KN-25 short-range ballistic missiles, to penetrate and incapacitate missile defenses.
US-made Patriot missile interceptors and homegrown Cheongung II missiles — which have been deployed in South Korea — can engage incoming ballistic missiles at altitudes up to 40 kilometers. The US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system provides the upper tier of a multilayered missile defense system and is capable of intercepting missiles at altitudes of 40-150 km in their terminal phase.
But South Korea has particularly strived to build up homegrown middle and upper-tier missile defenses — which have not yet developed — against mounting North Korean missile threats.
“The long-range surface-to-air missile, L-SAM, is a weapon system that intends to intercept missiles at higher altitudes than the Cheongung II, and we have been conducting flight tests of guided missiles and missile interception tests aiming to complete system development by 2024,” Eom said.
“Our goal is to mass produce and deploy the L-SAM within two to three years after system development is completed in 2024.”
The L-SAM has been developed to shoot down hostile missiles at altitudes between 50 and 60 km, and then South Korea plans to upgrade the L-SAM to the L-SAM 2.
“A pilot research on the L-SAM 2 has been underway,” Eom said. “If a series of the L-SAM (1 and 2) is deployed, we expect multilayered missile defense systems in the South Korean airspace will be further strengthened.”
South Korea also seeks to precipitate the deployment of the Low Altitude Missile Defense (LAMD) system, which is analogous to Israel’s “Iron Dome” interceptor, in the capital and densely populated areas. The plan aims to counter threats posed by North Korea’s artillery and multiple rocket launchers.
“We’ve carried out policy tasks including expeditious deployment of the long-range artillery interception system in order to strengthen the South Korean military’s system to counter threats posed by North Korea’s long-range artillery to the capital area,” Eom said.
“The government has put efforts to reduce the time required to develop and deploy long-range artillery interceptor systems by minimizing administrative lead time and securing core technologies in advance before starting research and development in earnest.”
South Korea commenced “exploratory development” of long-range artillery interceptor systems this year.
Eyes, ears on battlefield
Eom underscored the importance of South Korea’s efforts to domestically secure “cutting-edge military technologies” to complete the homegrown three-axis defense system.
South Korea has pursued locally developing technologies for “surveillance and reconnaissance, command and control which is yet insufficient” to build the Kill Chain system, according to Eom.
Locally developing intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities is essential to complete the Kill Chain system.
The Kill Chain — which is the first axis of South Korea’s homegrown three-pronged defense system — intends to detect, locate and select enemy targets for action. The system therefore enables South Korea to conduct a preemptive attack against the enemy in case of contingency scenarios.
“We also endeavor to develop independent ISR capabilities in multiple domains from space to ground,” Eom said, admitting South Korea’s high dependence on the US’ ISR assets.
“In space, a project to develop military reconnaissance satellites (the 425 project) — which is the core of the Kill Chain system — has been underway without a hitch. If satellites are deployed by 2025 after conducting tests and evaluations beginning from 2023, it will contribute to improving our military’s independent surveilling capabilities.”
In the air, high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles (HUAVs), airborne early warning and control aircraft and Baekdu reconnaissance aircraft have been deployed and monitored the entire Korean Peninsula.
Eom said South Korea is set to mass produce homegrown medium-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles (MUAVs). Testing and evaluation of the reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicle-II to be operated by corps-level units have been in progress.
On the ground, South Korea has operated Green Pine anti-ballistic missile radars to detect and track ballistic missiles while “researching and developing a project to replace imported, obsolete long-range radars.”
South Korea plans to begin to deploy first locally developed long-range radars from 2026, according to Eom.
South Korea’s long-range radars will monitor and detect targets including aircraft in the Korea Air Defense Identification Zone (KADIZ) and send data to the Air Force’s Master Control and Reporting Center for air defense. At the MCRC, the Air Force monitors the South and North Korean airspace around the clock and controls and commands all aircraft flying over the Korean Peninsula as well as air defense assets.
In addition, South Korea plans to commence the development of a microsatellite system this December and put dozens of microsatellites in clusters into orbit by 2030.
Eom underlined that the interconnected operation of military spy satellites and ultrasmall satellite constellations will reduce revisit times for satellites, which is the time interval between observations of the same location on Earth by satellites.
“South Korea’s surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities will be improved if the country can shorten revisit times over the Korean Peninsula by operating high-performance military reconnaissance satellites and microsatellite systems in a complementary manner.”
Eom explained that the DAPA has actively pushed forward various projects, including the 425 project and long-range artillery interception system, to “localize defense and combat systems, setting the goal of localization rate in producing components of each defense project is higher than 70 to 90 percent.”
The DAPA head also stressed that South Korea’s first homegrown KF-21 fighter aircraft will “fill the security vacuum by replacing long-running fighter jets and contribute to defending territorial airspace and national security.”
South Korea in July began a long journey of 2,200 test flights that will run until 2026. Around 120 KF-21 fighter jets will be deployed to South Korean Air Force bases by 2032.
A 4.5th-generation KF-21 Boramae aircraft – which has very low observability compared to a fourth-generation fighter — will be assessed as cut out for the future battlefield, Eom explained, underscoring that KF-21 fighter aircraft will be utilized as the “core combat power of South Korea’s Air Force.”
Eom said South Korea is able to refurbish and upgrade domestic-made KF-21 fighter jets at discretion with proprietary technology, playing up to one of the advantages of domestically developing combat fighter aircraft.
South Korea has been running up against certain limitations when it seeks to upgrade imported foreign fighter jets to meet the military’s needs or arm imported fighter jets with domestically produced weapons. Such a process requires permission from a manufacturing country.
“However, locally developed KF-21 aircraft will enable the development of its derivatives and localization of aircraft equipment and weapons to meet operational needs,” Eom said, adding that KF-21 fighter aircraft can be utilized as a part of a manned-unmanned-teaming (MUM-T) system should South Korea develop unmanned fighter aircraft.
South Korea’s KF-21 will also gain a competitive edge against European rivals in the cut-throat global fighter aircraft market, Eom said.
South Korea is bullish on the potential for exporting KF-21 fighter aircraft.
“KF-21 fighter jet is expected to be competitive against Europe-produced aircraft in terms of aircraft acquisition cost, efficiency of aircraft maintenance and operations and operations and maintenance costs,” Eom said. The operational lifespan of a fighter jet is usually several decades.
South Korea has also gained worldwide recognition for its technology through continuing exports of FA-50 light attack aircraft and T-50 advanced supersonic jet trainers.
“We expect that KF-21 fighter aircraft will have export competitiveness in countries which plan to operate fourth or 4.5th-generation fighter jets instead of fifth-generation fighters as well as countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia that have operated FA/T-50 aircraft,” Eom said.
“The competitiveness of KF-21 aircraft will be further enhanced in the export market if we develop its ability to operate weapons by continuously developing domestic aircraft weapons and pursuing system integration as well as reduce costs in mass production by increasing production of aircraft.”