Seoul Air Show: South Korea goes shopping

SEOUL — South Korea wants things. A new fighter, for instance. Also, a new attack helicopter. And then a maritime helicopter. And new radars for their F-16s. Before any of that happens, which could be within a year, the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) may spend hundreds of millions of dollars on an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) that’s less capable than it seems. Have we mentioned the plan to develop an indigenous, fifth-generation stealth fighter and unmanned combat air vehicle from scratch?

Above the 38th parallel, only 40km away, is an opponent from a war that technically never ended, who every now and then sinks a South Korean ship and lobs shells at an unsuspecting island. The security situation is grave, but that’s not all that is driving South Korea’s shopping list for advanced weapons.

This is a country with ambitions of global aerospace power, with a stated goal to eclipse Japan by the end of the decade as Asia’s second-largest aerospace manufacturer behind China.

To accomplish that feat, the country must eventually compete with the global aerospace giants it now welcomes this week to the Seoul Air Show, a biannual showcase of South Korea’s growing aerospace might. The KFX programme aims to deliver a fifth-generation stealth fighter by around 2020. South Korea has been a reliable customer of the US defence industry for more than 50 years, and now it is seeking to become an independent manufacturer of combat aircraft — and, therefore, a strategic competitor to the US defence industry.

This tension between what South Korea needs today and what it hopes to become is palpable. It was clear in a keynote speech on 17 October by General Gary North, chief of US Pacific Air Forces. North told us afterward that he did not mean to sound like he was telling the ROKAF how to invest their own money, but his language was not ambiguous.

“Now more than ever our solutions must be fiscally prudent, matched to counter the realistic threat to security, and interoperable with the capabilities shared by allies,” North said. “Now more than ever we must, such that we do not overspend or unnecessarily duplicate, and we must unify effort to defend and deter with appropriate solutions to a complex problem.”

He reminded the ROKAF that the US Air Force has learned this lesson already. The Lockheed SR-71 was built to replace the Lockheed U-2, but the latter is still flying on the Korean peninsula and the former has been retired for two decades due to operational costs. 

“The lesson there is that we must be very careful in looking to the future to procure technologies that are fiscally prudent and match need to actual requirements,” North said.

Another source of tension are the investments that the USAF is counting on South Korea to make over the next five years. The USAF is retiring the U-2 fleet in 2015, but won’t replace the 5th Reconnaissance Sqd at Osan Air Base with new aircraft. Instead, the USAF has stationed the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk at Anderson Air Base, Guam, a more optimum location to stand watch over the increasingly vital Taiwan and Malacca straits. The ROKAF has been asked to buy the RQ-4 to fill the gap on the peninsula, and so it is, but not without controversy.

The RQ-4s the ROKAF have requested are Block 30s that come without signals intelligence payloads, according to Northrop. That means an intelligence collection gap will still exist here after the U-2s are retired in 2015. Perhaps South Korea would prefer to invest that money in other priorities.

Not that the world’s defence contractors are complaining. South Korea is still one of the world’s most active shoppers, and, so far, there is still plenty for everyone here. 



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