Back To Top

ROK Air Force’s role in limited, localized conflicts

So far, an all-out war launched by North Korea has been the major conflict scenario that all kinds of operational plans by the Republic of Korea and the United States have been based upon. The structure and development of South Korean forces were organized in accordance with this assumption. There has been an implicit agreement that Seoul provides massive ground forces to defend its metropolitan areas, while Washington provides high-tech support from its navy and air force to its labor-intensive ally.

This seems to have resulted in a structure (the manpower ratio among South Korean Army, Navy and Air Force is 8:1:1.) underdeveloped, inefficient and ineffective in countering North Korea’s current style of conflict, in which rapid response, mobility, precision, lethality and survivability are the most necessary requirements.

However, this outdated total-war scenario has been losing ground since the early 1980s, when a gap in the relative national power between the two Koreas began to lean greatly in South Korea’s favor and the North faced serious security and economic crises.

North Korea’s national security objective seems to have shifted from traditional all-out war to unify the peninsula to limited conflict to secure its survival by seeking to develop asymmetric weapons and strategies.

With these means, Pyongyang appears to have been successful in obtaining deterrent power against the ROK-U.S. forces, gaining economic and political concessions from its neighboring countries, and controlling its internal insecurity since its founder Kim Il-sung died in June 1994.

Unfortunately, the South Korean military has continued a military posture adapted to this all-out war scenario, wasting precious resources in a time of global economic crisis.

We can predict Pyongyang’s next pattern of provocations against Seoul and the international community by examining its past ones: the 1998 test of a rocket capable of reaching Hawaii and Alaska; the second nuclear crisis of North Korea involving its secret uranium enrichment activities in late 2002; Pyongyang’s first and second nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, respectively; and, most recently, the sinking of a Navy patrol ship and the shelling of Yeonpyeongdo, located only 100 km west of Seoul.

By examining those provocations, we can anticipate that North Korea would prefer low-intensity, localized attacks on South Korea to large-scale military aggression. Considering recent provocations by North Korea, how could the current ROK military posture be the right one to effectively and efficiently counter them?

Applying air operations in past localized and low-intensity wars (e.g., the Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan wars) to the security environment on the Korean Peninsula, we can learn several lessons. Above all, localized air superiority must be obtained. It would provide freedom and survivability to allied air powers in a potential crisis in the northwestern sea-border area. North Korea is mobilizing a huge amount of surface-to-air missiles and radar-guided air defense artillery in the area to deny localized air superiority to the ROK Air Force.

Once localized air superiority has been secured, the synergistic effect of joint ground (marine) and naval operations could be maximized since air superiority ensures freedom for those services to act. Furthermore, they could be given real-time target information, including information on moving targets, from surveillance aircraft.

By utilizing those strategic gains from air superiority, joint marine and naval forces could quickly acquire targets and conduct precise attacks against them, bringing a quick end to provocations by the North without concern of the situation escalating. It would be a good example of strengthening the “jointness” of the three services, which has recently surfaced as a key issue in the ROK military.

To realize such air superiority, we need to secure several weapon systems. First, reliable intelligence systems are the most needed, including an unmanned high-altitude aircraft, like Global Hawk; infrastructure able to process and distribute information quickly; and high-speed data-links for exchanging information between sensors and shooters in real time.

Second, stealth capability is essential to infiltrate into the heavily protected North Korean territories, carrying out precise attacks on designated targets.

Lastly, air-refueling aircraft would increase the time fighter jets can spend in the air, so that the Air Force can respond quickly to North Korean provocations. This capability would also be the most important one should we be engaged in conflicts with neighboring countries over Dokdo or the southwestern sea of Jeju Island in the future.

These weapon systems are the most essential elements in achieving what is called the “proactive deterrence strategy” by the current South Korean government due to its ability to exert denial and retaliation against North Korea’s localized provocations.

In order to secure such weapon systems, the ROK Air Force should start its HUAV (high-altitude UAV), Tanker (air-refueling aircraft) and F-X (the fifth-generation stealth aircraft) programs now to field them by December 2015, when the South Korean military takes over wartime operational control from the U.S.

In conclusion, air power is the force most needed to deter and deny North Korea’s localized provocations in the future. In addition, the 50-year-old labor-intensive military structure should be reorganized to effectively and efficiently counter a North Korea armed with asymmetric weapons and strategies as soon as possible. In this reorganization, mobility, promptness, lethality, preciseness and survivability should be key factors considered.

Given these truths, are you still supportive of the outdated assumption of an all-out war on the Korean Peninsula? If not, why not invest in the ROK’s asymmetric force against North Korea ― the ROK Air Force?

By Park Ki-tae

Park Ki-tae is a lieutenant colonel of the ROK Air Force. He received his Ph.D. in policy analysis from the RAND Graduate School. ― Ed.
catch table
Korea Herald daum