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Tensions strengthen US grip on Korean procurement

Heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula could push South Korea even farther into the arms of the US military aircraft industry - and make it harder for international rivals to make breakthroughs.

"Every time an incident occurs on the peninsula the South Korean government talks about new equipment so as to be better prepared next time," says an industry source. "Often nothing materialises, but this time it seems different. Procurement officials say they obtained funding after the sinking of the Cheonan."

The South Korean navy corvette sank with the loss of 46 lives on 26 March, with North Korea strongly suspected of having torpedoed the vessel. Its armed forces on 23 November killed two marines and two civilians when shelling a South Korean island. While South Korea fired a few shells in response to the latest attack, many nationals feel that their country's response has been tepid.

"I've never seen things this bad," says the industry source. "Probably South Korea's defence ties with the USA will get even stronger, and Seoul seems to have the intent and drive to procure systems."

Washington's defence establishment has enjoyed exceptionally strong ties with Seoul in the decades since the end of the Korean War in 1953. The combat power of the Republic of Korea Air Force is virtually a US-built monopoly. While Seoul has at times been sensitive to criticism that it is over-reliant on US weapons, the situation is unlikely to change.

"South Korea sees US aircraft and other systems as essential to interoperability," says another industry source. "It simply doesn't make sense for it to go elsewhere for major purchases."

It is also impossible to separate South Korea's role as a customer of US arms from its role as a pivotal ally in a volatile region. The US military has about 29,000 personnel on the Korean peninsula and over 100 aircraft, primarily Lockheed Martin F-16s and Fairchild A-10s.

To the irritation of North Korea and China, the USA and South Korea regularly conduct drills involving air, land and sea forces. They also operate a joint headquarters on the peninsula, with a premium placed on communication.

That said, Seoul has purchased some non-US aircraft. It operates 17 BAE Systems Hawks, as listed in Flightglobal's MiliCAS database, although Korea Aerospace Industries' T-50 advanced jet trainer was co-developed with Lockheed.

South Korea's navy also operates AgustaWestland Lynx helicopters from its frigates, with these equipped for the anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare roles. Israel has also supplied the country with weapons over the years.

Nonetheless, these systems are used only in ancillary roles, serving only to highlight South Korea's reliance on the USA. "If there is a war on the Korean peninsula, will the French show up to help?", comments a US industry source.

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