Sizing up South Korea’s defence strategy
South Korea’s proximity to both its belligerent northern neighbour North Korea and China has made it a strategic lynchpin for the US and other allies. It’s no surprise then that the country is projected to become a major export hub and buyer for new technology. So what are South Korea’s defence priorities and who is lining up to sign the contracts?
When you share a backyard with both North Korea and China, and form a key strategic lynchpin for the US and its allies in the region, the need to keep your national defences up to scratch is never likely to be very far from your mind.
Even before the rhetoric being bellowed daily out of Pyongyang had ramped up to its current level, Seoul had announced a 4% increase in its defence budget for 2017, reaching a record 40.34 trillion won ($34bn) – some 10% of the overall national spending. Around a third of that has been earmarked to bolster combat capabilities, with the accelerated timetable for deployment of the ‘Kill Chain’ strike system and the Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) accounting for the lion’s share.
Relations between North Korea and its southern neighbour – not to mention most of the rest of the world – have taken a definite downturn since the announcement of that budget at the end of 2016, driving the South towards beefing up its anti-missile systems still further.
Two additional Israeli-made EL/M-2080 Green Pine early warning radar systems look to be on the cards in 2017, and deployment of the recently delivered US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system is also expected to be completed by the end of the year. In addition, there is also to be an increase in defence R&D initiatives as set out previously in the Ministry of National Defence (MND)’s medium-term plan.
All this joins existing, multi-billion dollar acquisition plans that include naval combat helicopters, maritime patrol and surveillance aircraft, upgrading to the PAC-3 missile system and extensive improvement to the country’s fighter jet fleet.
Offsets and exports
It continues a general trend that has, for several years now, seen South Korea consistently ranking in the top four or five of the world’s largest importers of defence equipment and technology - but there is another side to this, and one which forms an important strand in the Republic of Korea's (RoK) strategy for staying ahead. Much of the long-standing investment in foreign arms technology, most of it from the US, that has helped Seoul face up to the threat from the north has also been used to good effect to bolster a growing domestic sector.
Starting back in 1982, and then originally intended to boost Korea’s aerospace industry, a strong ‘offset’ obligation policy applies to arms deals valued at $10m or more which requires foreign suppliers or contractors to offset at least half of the cost of the project through technology transfer, or by using locally sourced parts or manufacturing facilities. As a result, the RoK has secured valuable knowledge from some of the world’s major defence primes, and subsequently leveraged it both at home, and now increasingly on the export market.
Taking on the world
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) put South Korea in 26th position among the world’s top weapons exporting nations for 1996; just ten years later it had risen to 17th and by 2016 it ranked 9th. According to the latest figures available, a total of seven RoK companies now make it into the top 100 arms-producing companies in the world, three of which appeared on that list for the first time as recently as 2015. US Government data shows that in 2014 alone, 137 South Korean defence companies exported an increasingly diverse inventory of products to a total of 87 countries, including some in Europe and South America.
With the emphasis heavily on supporting home-grown technology development and the R&D budget set to rise from its 2015 level of 6.5% to exceed 9% by 2021, and ultimately hit 15% beyond then, that export drive will be unlikely to show many signs of slowing. Many now tip South Korea to eclipse China as the leading arms exporter on the Asian market, possibly as soon as 2020.
The impetus towards this has certainly been building. South Korean engineering talent has been steadily making significant inroads into the global defence market, building a range of systems capable of competing with the best in the world – and it seems there is no shortage of countries lining up to buy them.
Given the RoK’s long-established, world-class shipbuilding industry, it is little surprise that the country’s shipyards have been playing a significant part in the story, both domestically and on the wider stage. The latest Korean warship designs, such as the Dokdo-class amphibious assault ship and the Sejong the Great-class (also known as KD-III) guided missile destroyer, may have arisen to serve the country’s new, more expansionist phase of naval activity, but they have also put its shipyards firmly on the procurement radar of other nations, including the UK
In 2012, the Royal Navy chose Daewoo to build four new 37,000-tonne Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability (MARS) tankers for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary in a deal worth £452m – although the arrival of the first of these, RFA Tidespring, in April was some 15 months behind schedule. However, it seems that other international deliveries have been more timely; in January Daewoo handed over the 3,650-tonne DW3000 Frigate to the Royal Thai Navy in a $410m contract that formed one of the largest in Thai history, and a second order is also rumoured to be under consideration.
India is also looking to RoK shipbuilders to meet its needs. In April, the two governments signed a memorandum of understanding that will see five fleet support ships built for around $1.5bn. Another contract, worth three times that amount, is also at an advanced stage of negotiation that will partner South Korea’s Kangnam Corporation with Goa Shipyard to build twelve mine counter measure vessels, with the conclusion of the deal expected by the end of the year.
The Republic of Korea has also gradually been making headway with land systems, particularly with co-production and technology transfer deals of its own.
In April, India announced that 100 tracked, self-propelled artillery guns are to be jointly built by Korea's Hanwha Techwin and Indian company Larsen & Toubro, while Turkey expects production of the new Altay main battle tank – derived from Hyundai Rotem’s XK-2 Black Panther – to begin shortly.
Looking further ahead, Korea’s new, lightweight K21 infantry fighting vehicle from Hanwha Defense Systems also seems likely to attract some interest on the export market.
It is a similar story for the aerospace sector, which has been providing KT-1 turboprop basic trainers to a number of countries, notably Turkey and the Philippines, and fielding the T-50 Golden Eagle family of supersonic trainer and lightweight fighter aircraft on the international market. The Golden Eagle is already in service with the RoK, Indonesia, Iraq, the Philippines and, shortly, Thailand; and a number of other countries are also eyeing it, either to replace their ageing jet trainers, or in preference to considerably more expensive alternative, high-end combat aircraft.
How many of those turn into actual procurement purchases remains to be seen, but the interest generated to date makes the point that, for many smaller nations especially, South Korea’s mix of capability and keen pricing – from aircraft to artillery – makes for a particularly strong sales pitch.