While tensions in the region reached a high with North Korea’s sixth nuclear test last September, there’s been a dramatic de-escalation since early this year. In the forthcoming July issue of AFM, Robin Polderman looks at the Republic of Korea Air Force and the challenges it faces should a second Korean war erupt.
On July 27, 1953, after three years of intense war, a ceasefire was signed between North and South Korea. Ever since then the conflict has had the potential of flaring up again and numerous incidents have taken place in the following decades. In the last decade, North’s nuclear ambitions – along with continuing ballistic missile tests – have put its neighbours, as well as the United States, South Korea’s main ally, on edge. However, things began to change at the beginning of 2018, with North Korea announcing the Seoul-Pyongyang hotline would be reinstated, an inter-Korean summit would take place in April, and President Donald Trump declaring that a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was scheduled for June 12. President Trump later cancelled the summit, but both sides have since made renewed efforts to hold it as planned.
While relations between the three parties currently appear more cordial, there is still international scepticism that this new bond will last. The Han-guk Kong Goon (Republic of Korea Air Force, ROKAF) would face an enormous challenge should the two Koreas go to war again. Not only can the North put up many, albeit obsolete, aircraft, it also possesses an enormous amount of artillery and mobile missile launchers with which it can strike its southern neighbour. It’s estimated that North Korea is capable of firing up to 10,000 artillery rounds per minute, which could inflict 20,000 South Korean casualties per day during the opening stages of a potential conflict. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, North Korea also possesses the world’s third largest stockpile of biological and chemical weapons.
Advancing by stealth
The ROKAF opted for the F-35A to deter these growing threats and signed a contract for 40 examples on September 30, 2014. The first Lightning II for the ROKAF took to the air at Fort Worth, Texas, on March 19 and the second aircraft first flew on May 2. Although it was previously suggested that the first F-35s would arrive at Suwon Air Basethis year, it now appears they will be based at Cheongju ABalongside the F-4Es. Deliveries of the Lightning II are planned for completion before the end of 2021.
Further modernisation will materialise around 2026, when the first of a planned 120 Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) KF-X fighters is scheduled to enter service. The KF-X will be a twin-engined aircraft with stealth features designed to fill the gap between the F-16 and the F-35. The programme is being pursued in co-operation with Indonesia, which had agreed to pay 20% of the development costs. However, Indonesia is behind on payments and according to Korean sources, the programme itself could now be in jeopardy.
Once operational, it is planned that the KF-X will replace the remaining F-4Es. The ROKAF received a total of 95 F-4Es, new-build as well as former US Air Force examples, between 1977 and 1990. The second-hand jets have all been withdrawn from use, leaving just over 25 Phantom IIs still in service at Cheongju. They are capable of striking North Korean targets with GPS-guided ordnance and the massive AGM-142 Popeye standoff cruise missile. Subsequently they have been updated to carry the indigenous ALQ-88K jamming pod.
The KF-X is also slated to replace the last F-5Es in service. Between 1974 and 1986 the ROKAF received 174 F-5E and 40 F-5F aircraft, of which 68 were built in Korea as KF-5E and KF-5F variants. The oldest F-5s have been withdrawn from use, leaving around 100 still in service. Currently they equip three squadrons at Suwon, two at Gangneung and a training unit at Gwangju.