The South Korean Missile Defense Program Goes Indigenous

The launcher of the Cheongung II medium-range Korean-developed missile system.

A Cheongung II transporter-erector-launcher.

Despite the South Korean military being heavily reliant on the US for funds and guidance, Korea excels at building military equipment. Thanks its substantial industrial capacity, Korea has been able to build many complex systems in-house, such as the impressive K2 “Black Panther” main battle tank and K30 “Biho” self-propelled anti-aircraft gun.

In spite of this, South Korea’s missile defense assets had for a while been composed primarily of American and Israeli-designed components. American-made Aegis radars and Standard missiles for destroyers, Israeli-made missile-defense radars, and American-made Patriot missiles comprise the bulk of the missile-defense force.

However, Korea’s approach of purchasing missile-defense systems from other nations changed with the announcement of two new indigenous missile systems. These new systems will replace the Rolling Airframe and Hawk missile systems while supplementing the Patriot systems.

One of the missiles to be built by Korea is the K-SAAM, or Korean Surface-to-Air Anti-Missile. This missile is reported by Jane’s to be a replacement for the Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) system, which currently offers close-in defense for many of Korea’s ships. The missile is reported to be a medium-range system designed to intercept high-performance munitions. Interestingly, the K-SAAM is housed in four four-cell VLS mounts (for a total of 16 missiles per ship), as opposed to the rotating, self-contained mount of the RAM which it is to replace.

The K-SAAM launch and storage setup resembles that of the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile, another medium range naval missile housed in VLS cells. Perhaps this is why the K-SAAM appears visually similar to the ESSM. However, the K-SAAM and the ESSM do not have the same kind of seeker; the K-SAAM is terminally guided by a dual microwave and infrared seeker, while the ESSM uses semi-active radar homing. While not much else is known about the characteristics or possible applications of the K-SAAM, it is possible that South Korea could use them to produce a 9K330 Tor-esque air-defense vehicle, which could carry a large amount of missiles in VLS cells and excel at point-defense.

The other component of South Korea’s indigenization effort is a longer range and higher performance air-defense anti-munitions system, the Cheongung system, based off of the successful Russian S-300 and S-400 missiles. Almez Antey worked with the South Koreans to built the medium-range (40km) Cheongung II system, which focuses on point-defense. The wheeled TEL launches its eight missiles vertically. The missiles are reportedly electronic countermeasures resistant and have a low infrared signature. The Cheongung II system does not replace the Patriot missiles currently in operation. Rather, it supplants the increasingly obsolete MIM-23 Hawk system.

The move to develop the Cheongung II instead of merely purchasing Patriot PAC-3 batteries is interesting for a number of reasons. First, the development of the Cheongung II involved cooperation with Almez Antey and the Russian defense establishment. This resulted in the US government voicing concerns in 1997, concerns which were ostensibly over interoperability and performance. The decision to forgo purchases of new Patriots was undoubtedly blow the US-Korea interoperability, as the ROK Army operating separate systems from their American allies complicates logistics and integration.

So why did Korea strike out on its own and develop the Cheongung II with aid from Russia? After all, the United States, Seoul’s closest ally, manufactures the Patriot PAC-3, which is purpose built to defend against rocket attacks. One possible answer is that the Patriot PAC-3 simply didn’t fit the bill. For one, the Patriot PAC-3 has a meager 15km range. This is much lower than the Cheongung II’s 40km range. As a result, the Cheongung II can offer more coverage with less units, lowering the cost of coverage per unit area. South Korea could have bought Patriot PAC-2 missiles, but the PAC-2 probably performs similarly to the Cheongung II. Also, the Patriot PAC-2 launcher only stows four missiles to the Cheongung II’s eight.

Perhaps just as important as performance considerations, Korea was able to participate in development of the Cheongung II system directly and build the missiles in-house, giving the Korean defense establishment a greater familiarity with air defense systems and likely an enhanced capability to design them in the future. After all, self sufficiency in defense is the ultimate goal, and by participating directly in the development of the Cheongung II system, the Korean industry was able to absorb intelligence and know-how. While it is possible Korea could have license-built Patriot systems, this would ultimately not yield the same benefits as participating in the R&D directly.

Some may interpret the Russia-Korea effort as a sign of increased ties to come. However, the Cheongung II episode is likely more illustrative of how willing Russia is to sell its military wares to virtually anyone than it is indicative of a fomenting friendship. South Korea being a staunch US ally makes Russia’s transfer of their technology to Korea interesting and noteworthy, but the transfer is nonetheless unsurprising considering the various unsavory regimes Russia is willing to sell military hardware to. Russia isn’t exactly highly discriminating in who it makes friends with or transfers its weapons to; it has continued military sales to the Syrian Assad regime even though the regime has evidently committed numerous war crimes. Russia-North Korea relations have also been faring well, which affirms that Russia is not taking sides in the North-South conflict or seriously courting Seoul as a new ally.

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Alex Hempel
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