South Korea Defense Purchases: Filling a Bottomless Pit

By 2022, South Korea is expected to be spending more on defense than Japan and will rank as the fifth or sixth highest spender in the world on its defense. Military tensions on the Korean Peninsula are resulting in large sums being spent on defense, even though military experts often question the effectiveness of the Triad System. That system inevitably leads to South Korea purchasing advanced weapons from abroad -- mainly from the US -- which will profit the US defense industry while not being of much help to the South Korean defense industry and cutting-edge technology.

This not only drains the country’s wealth, but it also has considerable geopolitical effects due to the country’s resulting technological dependency. South Korea needs a “Plan B” that redefines its concept of military operations to overcome the current situation where weapons purchases harm rather than help national security.

President Moon Jae-in, while running for office, pledged that he would increase defense spending, then at 2.6 percent of gross domestic product, to 2.9 percent. As a result, South Korea increased its defense spending the most among OECD member countries in 2017, by 7.6 percent, and in 2018, by 8.2 percent, which were the first two years Moon was in office.

The Ministry of Defense’s 2019-2023 Mid-term Defense Plan aims at an annual increase of 7.6 percent, meaning South Korea’s defense budget in 2022 will reach W57 trillion (US$48 billion). It took 10 years for South Korea to surpass Japan’s spending, considering Seoul spent half of what Tokyo did in 2012. It is expected to spend more than W60 trillion in 2023. The South Korean military will be a massive national defense system, with a 500,000-man army, navy, air force, and marines, 770 weapons systems, and military supplies amounting to 700,000 items.

Advanced military equipment leads the increases in defense spending. Among the W46.7 trillion South Korea plans to spend in 2019, W15.37 trillion will be spent on enhancement of defense capacity, meaning development and acquisition of military equipment, an increase of 13.7 percent from the previous year.

Why is the South Korean military supply market growing so rapidly? During the nine years of the two former presidents’ tenure, Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, the Korean Peninsula was always a region with heightened military tensions. North Korean leader Kim Jung Un, who came to power in 2011, achieved rapid development in military science technology. North Korea successfully launched an ICBM, the Hwasong-14, equipped with the latest Baekdusan engine, in 2017.

It also proved that North Korea has developed SLBMs, showing off its solid fuel missile. Its nuclear test in September 2017 was the strongest among its six tests, and showed that it was capable of testing small nuclear warheads with efficient explosions, known as boosted fission weapons. This nuclear warhead means that North Korea possesses the technological potential to build an H-bomb.

This is what some in the West ignored in the past, declaring it to be impossible. North Korea possesses short-, mid-, and long-range missiles, making it capable of hitting not only South Korea, but also Japan and the US. This has actualized the possibility of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula. The two former presidents conceptualized military operations that would construct deterrence over the Peninsula with the US nuclear umbrella, while South Korea would deal with North Korea’s missiles and nuclear capabilities on its own.

The Ministry of Defense called this the “Triad System.” The concept, which was adopted under a new name by the Moon administration, inevitably leads to large increases in national defense spending.

The Park administration established the Triad System at the height of the North Korean nuclear crisis. It spent W57.48 trillion on 47 weapons systems. A total of 17 trillion had been spent by 2017. For its part, the Moon administration spends W5 trillion annually. The first axis of the Triad System is the Kill-Chain, which is a preemptive strike to detect and neutralize signs of a North Korean nuclear missile launch and confirm the results. The whole process of detection, identification, hit, and results verification should be done in under 25 minutes.

A total of 30 weapons system have been adopted to achieve this. It monitors North Korea and detects its target using reconnaissance satellites, unmanned reconnaissance planes such as HUAV or MUAV, multi-source image fusion systems, and high performance sensors such as MS-EO/IR. It also uses air-to-ground missiles such as TAURUS, mid-range air-to-ground guided bombs, and laser guided bombs to hit its targets.

Additionally, the system is equipped with strategic surface-to-ground missiles, multimode guidance missiles such as SDB-II, mid-range GPS guided missiles, and strategic ground-to-ground guided weapons. They will be deployed on the newly acquired F-35A fighters as well as current F-15K fighters, the army’s AHX such as Apache, and the navy’s destroyers. The army will acquire more of the already-owned ballistic missiles that can fly 800 kilometers and cruise missiles with a range of 1,000 km.

Weapons Layered Upon Weapons

The second axis of the Triad is the Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) system. It is aimed at intercepting North Korean missiles in the air when the preemptive strike fails to neutralize any North Korean nuclear missiles. Ten weapons systems are deployed here. The first are reconnaissance planes, ballistic missile early warning radar, and ballistic missile operations controls to alert South Korea about any missiles.

American-made Patriot interception missiles and South Korean-made medium altitude surface-to-air missiles (M-SAM) and low altitude surface-to-air missiles (L-SAM) are deployed to intercept incoming missiles. The South Korean Navy will equip its three Aegis destroyers with SM-3s, the standard US interception missile. The third axis is the Korea Massive Punishment & Retaliation (KMPR) system to ensure the total annihilation of the North Korean regime if the second axis fails and South Korea suffers massive damage. It adds seven weapons systems, in addition to the Kill-Chain forces from the first axis: transportation helicopters to transport special operation forces (CH/HH-47D), grenade launchers for special ops, destroyers to support special ops, a mock special ops exercise system, and reinforcements for special operations forces.

This Triad System, however, has yet to prove its effectiveness or adequacy. Dr. Chang Young Keun of Korea Aerospace University pointed out in 2017 that even if we assume that North Korea uses one transporter erector launcher (TEL) to launch a nuclear missile, the rate of successful South Korean identification and neutralization of the missile is between 0.12 and 2.64 percent with its five surveillance satellites. The detection range of KAMD’s intercept radar is limited and can only successfully detect when North Korean missiles rise higher than 35 km. This severely limits its practicality, because its total response time, such as preparation time and flight time, is too short. It also omits verification tests such as interception asset integration tests.

Yoon Woo, a former Air Force general, has pointed out that it is very hard to confirm that South Korea can accurately locate the North Korean leadership’s secret hideout, crucial information for KMPR to be effective. He assesses that South Korea will need to meticulously bomb all of Pyongyang city, which is 1,700 square kilometers in size, requiring 60,000 missiles worth around W200 trillion. Yet, this might fail to harm the North Korean leadership to any degree, because they will likely be hiding in an unknown bunker.

This raises doubts about the army’s ground-to-ground missiles. The US Congressional Research Service (CRS) pointed out in its June 2013 report that SM-3, the missile that the Korean Navy wants to adopt, does not have much utility in South Korea, because its interception altitude of 500 km is too high.

The Triad System plans to adopt the following weapons systems: the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (STAR), P-8A Poseidon Maritime Surveillance Aircraft, the naval helicopter MH-60, unmanned aircraft the MQ-1C Gray Eagle and MQ-9 Reaper, unmanned aerial vehicles RQ-170 Sentinel, RQ-7 Shadow, and the RQ-4 Global Hawk, F-35A fighters, and interception missiles SM-3, SM-6, and PAC-3 MSE.

Many military experts are questioning the effectiveness of the Triad System. However, because the security situation on the Korean Peninsula is extremely intense and military preparations are necessary, South Korea continues to spend massive amounts on national defense. Even within the Ministry of Defense, there are concerns that too many imported weapons projects will hinder the military’s united operations.

For instance, when the army launches missiles, the air force cannot fly combat planes. In this case, it becomes a turf fight over who has the authority to lead the hit on major targets in North Korea. In addition, experts expect that the Triad System will inevitably lead to South Korea purchasing large amounts of high technology weapons from overseas -- mainly from the US – which will profit the US defense industry while not being of much help to fostering the South Korea’s defense industry and cutting-edge technology.

For example, US-based Boeing has already sold South Korea 60 F-15K fighters and 36 Apache attack helicopters, and is expected to sell additional early warning and aerial refueling equipment. Following the sale of F-16 fighter jets, Lockheed Martin sold 40 F-35A fighters to South Korea and hopes to sell 20 more, and supplied the AEGIS Combat System. As a result of the Triad System, the two US companies will earn more than W20 trillion from South Korea. The Northrop Grumman Corporation supplies Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles, and Raytheon supplies the Patriot interception missile to South Korea.

The profits from the sale of these systems to South Korea do not stop simply with selling weapons. The more advanced technology a weapon employs, the larger the cost of operations and maintenance compared to the purchasing cost. During this process, massive amounts of national wealth are drained overseas, and South Korea will be even more subordinate to the US, politically and technologically.

Increasing Secondary Defense Budgets

For example, for the 40 recently purchased F-35A fighters, approximately W7.7 trillion was spent, but for the next 20 years, approximately W10 trillion will be required for operations and maintenance. The Ministry of Defense estimated operations and maintenance costs for expendable supplies over 20 years to be W89 billion won. However, according to the Republic of Korea Joint Chiefs of Staff, for one fighter, W250 billion be required for 20 years.

This fighter costs US$16,000 for a one-hour flight. During its life cycle, the technology is totally controlled by the US. The South Korean military cannot even open the fighter, which always needs maintenance, without permission. Also, for maintenance, the planes have to be sent to Japan or Australia, where the regional Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) centers for the F-35 are based.

All records and maintenance needed for this aircraft are done through real-time data in the US Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS). Due to this, the South Korean military will not be able to access its own fighter aircraft, because it is illegal, and unauthorized access to warfighters is also blocked.

The South Korean military, with no capability to overhaul high-tech fighters itself, depends on overseas groups for most of its maintenance. As a result, the external overseas maintenance dependence rate for the F-16 is 76 percent, for the F-15K 94 percent, and for the E-737 100 percent.

In the case of the F-35, it needs to be shipped overseas just for re-painting stealth camouflage, with the cost for this unable to be calculated. Overseas reliance for maintaining high-tech aircraft and their engines as well as components and spare parts increases maintenance costs exponentially.

As of 2019, current maintenance costs for military equipment is 3.1 trillion won. However, the “Mid-term Defense Plan 2019-2023” expects this to increase approximately 14 percent each year, reaching 4.07 trillion won by 2023.

By this time, 26 percent of the W4.7 trillion is expected to flow out to the supplier state. This outward flow of aviation equipment maintenance costs is particularly serious, and in 2023, approximately 900 billion won, more than half of maintenance costs of 1.6 trillion won, will flow overseas. If there is continued upgrade in the maintenance process, outward flows will become even more serious and additional costs will be incurred. When high-tech arms are sold, the buyer country is continuously on the path of subordination to the selling country.

In this situation, the power relationship shifts and becomes a seller’s market, creating an odd situation when the buyer pays and begs at the same time. Eventually, in the 2020s, the South Korean military will not stop at spending W4-5 trillion each year, but will have the additional burden of having to expend a similar amount in maintenance costs.

In 2019, the South Korean defense industry’s approximately 80 companies all experienced decreases in sales, exports, and employment. While the country’s military budget is the sixth largest in the world, South Korea’s aviation and defense industry is not even in the top 15. Israel, which has half of South Korea’s defense budget, exports eight times more arms than South Korea, while Sweden, which has one-sixth the budget size of South Korea, exports six times more.

Even though the size of South Korea’s aircraft purchases is much larger, its aviation industry is not as capable as those in Italy, Indonesia, South Africa, and Spain. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in 2016, the value added for every 1 unit of currency in defense expenditure for Sweden is 2.3 and for the US 1.8, whereas in South Korea it is only 0.7.

In other words, unlike other countries where jobs and capital are created through investing in defense expenditures, South Korea, which introduces massive amounts of foreign weapons, is losing money for every penny of defense spending.

It is not simply that national wealth is being lost, but the geopolitical influence that technology subordination causes is serious. South Korea will soon outspend Japan on defense, yet be subordinated by Japan’s accumulated overhaul capability and technology, following the latter’s principle that “all weapons are produced domestically.”

The massive maintenance abilities that Mitsubishi Heavy Industries developed in Nagoya makes Japan the designated regional F-35 MRO center in the Asia-Pacific. The F-35 contract between the US and South Korea specifies that South Korean fighter planes be maintained in the regional MRO center and not inside South Korea.

In the future, there might be situations where South Korea will have to request military maintenance from Japan in militarily urgent situations. In this case, there will be geopolitical change in Northeast Asia: an uncomfortable situation for South Korea, where militarily strong Japan assumes the leading role. Currently, South Korean military authorities do not have a specific solution for this. The army, air force and navy are all focused on competition within the South Korean military to adopt more weapons, and they are paying attention to increasing the size of their own arsenals rather than military effectiveness or national interest. Such military bureaucracy is decreasing the rationality of South Korea’s security.

Reckless Run through Military Control Center

In September 2017, the White House disclosed details of President Donald Trump’s phone call with President Moon, in which Trump said that “South Korea decided to import weapons.” In November of the same year, Trump said that “South Korea will expand its weapons purchases, and [the US] trade deficit will decrease.”

Also, on April 11, 2019, at the South Korea-US summit meeting held in Washington, D.C., Trump announced that South Korea had decided to purchase a large quantity of military equipment, saying “South Korea has agreed to purchase a tremendous amount of our military equipment, from jet fighters to missiles, to lots of other things.”

This suggests that there is a high possibility that South Korea will purchase additional weapons, possibly worth more than W10 trillion, during Trump’s tenure. Amid this, North Korea explicitly expressed complaints about the South Korean military’s large quantity of arms imports, arguing that is it a “violation of the South-North Korean military agreement.”

To overcome the issue of arms imports weakening rather than strengthening South Korea’s security, a “Plan B” involving a full-fledged review of the current South Korean military strategy is necessary. President Moon ordered, at a Ministry of Defense report on operations this March, a new plan for arms control on the Korean Peninsula and to restrain a massive increase in military capabilities, depending on the development of relations between the two Koreas.

However, this order won’t easily pass by the greedy bureaucrats in the Ministry of Defense. A presidential assessment committee for the South Korean military’s Triad System should be convened, and a national level arms control center should be established to examine the efficiency of the South Korean military’s arms imports.

Jong Dae Kim is a member of the South Korea National Assembly and serves on the Assembly’s National Defense Committee. Formerly the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Defense 21+, he also served as aide to a National Defense Committee member. This was written for the East Asia Foundation, a Seoul-based think tank. His views expressed here do not reflect any official position of the East Asia Foundation.