With renewed threat from North Korea and the rising challenges of an assertive China, South Korea has initiated a range of naval, air and land acquisition programs that will support the Republic of Korea’s transition towards developing a robust, deployable, conventional power projection and deterrence focused force.
Since the end of the Korean conflict, the two Korea's have maintained an often tenuous peace – defined by the promise of mutually assured destruction should hostilities bubble over. While the US, Russia and China have sought to maintain the armistice for fear of conflict between the superpowers, the increasingly unpredictable North Korean regime combined with the competing economic, political and strategic interests driven by China has served to prompt a major strategic rethink in South Korea.
South Korea's response has been driven by two distinctly different factors, namely North Korea's continued pursuit of reliable nuclear delivery systems and the conventional manpower and firepower of the North Korean Army; and rising power projection capabilities and willingness of China to assert its influence over a number of contested territories and sensitive sea-lines of communication in the the South and East China Seas.
In response, Korea has embarked on a series of acquisition and modernisation programs targeting each of the branches of the Republic of Korea Armed Forces playing a critical role in the nation's response to its increasingly challenging geo-political environment.
Transitioning toward a blue water navy
Developing a blue water navy has been a major focus of Korea's response to the mounting capabilities of North Korea and China's continued assertiveness in the South and East China Seas – central to this Maritime Task Flotilla Seven, established in 2010, which incorporates a range of amphibious warfare ships, namely the Dokdo Class, large surface combatants including the Seejong the Great and Chungmugong Classes, advanced domestically-designed and built frigates and corvettes and a growing fleet of advanced submarines, including conventional submarines to be capable of submarine launched ballistic missiles.
The centrepiece of Korea's transition towards a blue water capable navy is the Dokdo Class vessels, which are slightly smaller than the Royal Australian Navy's Canberra Class amphibious warfare ships – however, unlike HMA Ships Canberra and Adelaide, Korea is actively pursuing the acquisition and introduction of F-35B Joint Strike Fighters to provide an integrated fleet air defence and maritime strike capabilities.
While the Dokdo's serve as the flagship in Korea's 'Rapid Response Fleet' structure, Korea has recently announced plans for three additional 7,600-tonne block two Seejong the Great Class Aegis guided missile destroyers worth a total of US$3.3 billion, to be completed by 2028 – these vessels are expected to serve part of Korea's broader integrated air and missile defence capabilities with a secondary focus on anti-surface and land attack capabilities.
Further supporting the acquisition and modernisation of the Korean surface fleet, the Korean government has seen the Korean Navy also broaden the design and capabilities of the nation's destroyer fleet with the planned introduction of six evolved KDX-IIA Aegis powered destroyers, supported by a fleet of advanced guided missile frigates.
Korea's fleet of advanced submarines, namely locally produced variants of the German-designed Type 214 submarines, provide an effective asset escort, anti-merchant hunter-killer and conventional deterrence capability – however the growing nuclear capability of North Korea has prompted the South to begin the development of the four advanced Dosan Ahn Changho Class submarines, which are designed to serve a role similar to the larger ballistic missile submarines of the larger superpowers.
These large, conventional submarines as part of the US$2.9 billion KSS-III program are expected to have a range of about 10,000 nautical miles, combine endurance, relatively-high speed for a conventional submarine and an integrated land-attack capability through locally developed cruise and ballistic missiles to serve as a credible conventional deterrent to North Korea's conventional and nuclear forces.
F-35 and the fifth-gen air force
Korea, like Australia, the US and other key regional allies, has embraced the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as the future of its air combat capability signalling a transformation in the nation's air power. Korea's air power modernisation has largely been driven not by the capability of North Korea, rather it has been driven by the increasing integrated air and missile defence capabilities of China and, to a lesser extent, Japan.
While Korea was a committed partner in the F-35 program with an initial order for 40 F-35A variants signed in 2014, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) recently completed research for the acquisition of 20 additional F-35s pending a request for proposal worth about US$3 billion, which will be supplemented by a modernised Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) to be paired with Boeing P-8 Poseidon and Airbus-designed and manufactured KC-30A Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft.
Additionally, Korea has committed to developing a domestic fifth-generation fighter aircraft, the KAI KF-X, in partnership with both Indonesia and Turkey – the fifth-generation aircraft is designed to replace its ageing fleet of F-16 Flacon, F-4D/E Phantom II and F-5E/F Tiger II aircraft with aircraft designed to have a stealth profile beyond that of the Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon and less than the F-35.
The KF-X will provide a 'low' end air combat capability to the 'high' end air combat capability of the F-35, serving to support the broader transition towards developing a fifth-generation air force. Further supporting this transition is Korea's continued operation of the Boeing 737 Peace Eye (a Korean variant of the RAAF's E-7A Wedgetail), with plans for acquire a fleet of electronic attack aircraft similar to the EA-18G Growler aircraft or the G550 based electronic attack aircraft.
Similar platforms equates to a similar force structure?
Korea's focus on establishing itself as a regional power capable of intervening in regional affairs serves as a model for Australian force structure planners – the comparable economic, political and demographic size of Australia and South Korea combined with the similarity in the platforms and systems operated by both nations serve as a building block for both interoperability and similar force structure models.
As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Maritime power projection and sea control play a pivotal role in securing Australia’s economic and strategic security as a result of the intrinsic connection between the nation and Indo-Pacific Asia’s strategic sea-lines-of-communication in the 21st century.
Increasingly, multi-domain air power plays an important role in the efficacy of naval forces and serves as a key component in both the force structure and capability development plans for both South Korea and Australia – these similarities support not only closer relationships between the two nations that share unique geo-political and strategic similarities but also provide the opportunity to develop robust force structures to respond to the rapidly evolving regional strategic environment.