Local tensions to accelerate South Korean equipment plans

Singapore
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North Korea's increased belligerence could result in certain South Korean aircraft upgrade and acquisition programmes being accelerated.

This has been an exceptionally tense year on the volatile Korean peninsula. It is all but certain that a North Korean submarine torpedoed a South Korean corvette on 26 March. Then, on 23 November, North Korea shelled South Korea's Yeonpyeong island, killing two South Korean marines and two civilians.

South Korea and the USA followed the shelling with previously planned and heavily publicised naval drills in the Yellow Sea involving the USS George Washington aircraft carrier battle group. The US also held drills with Japan, which included warships and some 400 aircraft. Meanwhile, South Korea's new defence minister is reported as saying that he will relax the armed forces' rules of engagement.

korean f-16, republic of korea air force
 © Republic of Korea Air Force

While brinkmanship on the Korean peninsula is nothing new, some industry sources feel the worsening atmosphere could speed up certain existing programmes.

One major upgrade that has been on the cards is for South Korea's fleet of Lockheed Martin F-16C/Ds, of which the majority are Block 52 models, with the remainder being Block 32s. Flightglobal's MiliCAS database says the nation has 118 F-16Cs and 51 two-seater F-16Ds.

The common configuration improvement programme for the F-16 would provide a new mission computer, says an industry source. It would also provide a common datalink with US aircraft, as well as South Korea's own fleet of Boeing F-15Ks (below). The US manufacturer has so far delivered 46 of the latter type, with another 15 on order.

 
© Boeing

Another programme that could see progress is South Korea's purchase of the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned air vehicle. South Korea has long been interested in the model, but an industry source says budgetary constraints have held up the deal.

Aside from current tensions, the Global Hawk deal could also benefit from the pending retirement of the US Air Force's Cold War-era Lockheed U-2 spy plane, which has seen extensive use over the Korean peninsula.

But one stumbling block for South Korea's Global Hawk aspirations could be the Missile Technology Control Regime. Though both South Korea and the USA are signatories, it is conceivable that one or more other signatories - namely North Korea's ally, China - could try to block a Global Hawk sale.

"MTCR could definitely be an issue," says one industry source. "Even so, the USA could make an exception based on the defence needs of South Korea - and the fact that South Korea it is a treaty partner."

Other major South Korean programmes include Korea Aerospace Industries' developmental F/A-50, based on its T-50 advanced jet trainer. South Korea could begin testing the F/A-50 in 2012, and may eventually order between 60 and 150 of the new aircraft as replacements for its Northrop F-5Es.

Two other big programmes are the indigenous KAI KF-X and F-X3 fighter contract. The former envisages the production of around 120 fighters for the Republic of Korea Air Force, with aircraft development to be funded 60% by the South Korean government, 20% by KAI, and 20% by overseas partners. At November's Indo Defence show in Jakarta, KAI said it was still talking with potential foreign partners, although at July's Farnborough air show the company and Indonesia had signed a memorandum of understanding on the project.

Seoul is likely to issue a request for proposals for its F-X3 fighter contract in the first quarter of 2011. The Boeing F-15 Silent Eagle, Eurofighter Typhoon and Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will compete for a deal that could number up to 60 aircraft to replace McDonnell Douglas F-4Es.

Irrespective of existing and future projects, the air force is, by all objective measures, incomparably superior to that of its cash-strapped northern foe, both quantitatively and qualitatively - and this before considering US forces.

"I don't think North Korea could even launch an airplane," says one defence industry source. "They are woefully underfunded and likely suffer a severe lack of pilot training. South Korea could fly over North Korea much as the USAF flies over Iraq."