Understanding Airpower Modernization in South Korea


July 09, 2012 08:16 EDT

South Korea needs to modernize its air force, considering its past with Japan, North Korea's aggression and China’s increasing in military capabilities.


South Korea has faced various geo-strategic, military challenges since its independence from Japan in 1945. The climax was the Korean War from June 1950 to July 1953, in which South Korea had fought against North Korea’s invasion.

Since signing the Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953, there have still been numerous incursions and acts of aggression by North Korea. In March 2010, a North Korean submarine torpedoed and sunk the South Korean warship, ROKS (Republic of Korea Ship) Cheonan. Again, in November 2010, North Korebombarded a South Korean island in the Yellow Sea. Living with a belligerent and unpredictable neighbor, South Korea has no other option but to arm itself in order to protect its territorial integrity and population.

For South Korea, the security challenge comes not only from its northern neighbor. The security environment of Northeast Asia requires rethinking security and stability within the region. South Korea has increasingly paid attention to China’s rise in military capabilities: refurbishing the former Soviet Union’s aircraft carrier and developing its own indigenous stealth fighter jet. Due to its historical experience with Japan’s militarism in the early 20th century, South Korea has not always been a supporter of Japan’s rearmament, unlike the US.

Why is South Korea’s military modernization plan relevant?

As a part of South Korea’s military modernization, the FX-III procurement program of June 2012 is a significant increase of South Korea defence capabilities against external threats. In addition, considering the importance of airpower and air superiority in modern warfare, South Korea needs to keep up with its neighbors China and Japan, as they have both openly expressed their desires to modernize their airpower.

For instance, the US Lockheed Martin Corp. will supply Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) with its fighter jets. Meanwhile, China is in the middle of building its own indigenous stealth fighter aircraft. The majority of ROK Air Force (ROKAF) and JASDF fighter jets have been flying for over 30 years. Just as Japan decided to replace its aging fighter jets, South Korea needs to decommission its aging F-4 Phantom II and F-5E fighter aircrafts. If it fails to do so, South Korea will face a huge gap with its neighboring countries

Having seen all of these developments in Northeast Asia, one may question the cause and effect of such military modernization programs in the region. More importantly, people may even believe it could lead to another arms race in Northeast Asia. But it is natural for militaries around the world to continually modernize their weaponry and capabilities. Secondly, Northeast Asian security architecture has been very stable. Granted North Korea is a major security challenge to all three countries in the region, the trilateral relationship among the three countries on the other hand has dramatically improved for many years.

China’s military modernization has attracted much regional and global attention so far. China is the largest trading partner of Japan and South Korea, and vice versa. Having explored the cause and effects of military modernization in Northeast Asia, the initial reaction could be concern. However, deepening interdependency in Northeast Asia has been a positive, effective catalyst to thwart such skepticism.

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