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South Korean missile acquisition boosts strike capability

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In Brief

South Korea has gained a strategic edge on its rivals with the purchase of air-to-surface standoff missiles from Europe.

But the deal followed South Korea’s failure to win Washington’s approval for its first-choice US-made capability, raising questions about why the United States rejected the deal.


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The ROK’s military procurement agency confirmed on 19 June 2013 that the TAURUS KEPD 350, produced by a joint venture between European groups MBDA and Saab, was selected as the Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile Project partner. South Korea had been actively pursuing a new-generation air-to-surface standoff (long range) missile to equip the ROK Air Force’s F-15K Slam Eagle fighter jets. With the life expectancy of such missiles at about 10 years, the Air Force’s current capabilities, primarily purchased in 2002 and 2005, are nearing their end. South Korea initially tried to buy the Lockheed Martin AGM-158 JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile) to increase its long-range strike capability. But because Washington was reluctant to sanction the deal, South Korea instead opted to partner with the Europeans.

JASSM, a significant US strategic military capability, has so far only been sold to Australia, Finland and the Netherlands, despite various requests from other allied nations. The speculated reasons for the US rejection of the JASSM deal with South Korea vary. Primarily, the United States was reluctant to deal with South Korea because of export restrictions on highly capable delivery systems, as outlined by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). With JASSM’s operational range at about 370 kilometres, selling these would have exceeded the MTCR threshold of 300 kilometres.

But this issue is not the only explanation, especially given the United States and South Korea agreed in October 2012 to new guidelines enabling South Korea to develop and deploy missiles with an 800-kilometre range and 500-kilogram payload. To begin, South Korea’s delicate relationships with Japan and China must have been influential. Japan, unable to deploy pre-emptive strike weapons due to Article 9 of its pacifist constitution, would have been irritated if a regional rival was allowed to purchase standoff offensive weapons. Moreover, if the door for JASSM had opened to South Korea, it would not have been easy for the United States to reject other allies’ requests. In the long run, such a situation may have resulted in the proliferation of such weapons, an outcome that would jeopardise the MTCR’s authority. Washington may have also been concerned about the transfer of sensitive technology and reverse engineering

It was of course still necessary for South Korea to procure new air-to-surface missiles though. Firstly, South Korea needs to update its current arsenal. But just as importantly, from a strategic point of view, it is vital for South Korea to neutralise North Korea’s asymmetric warfare assets in preparation for the December 2015 handover of wartime operational command from the United States. Most of the North’s weapons of mass destruction production units and storage facilities are located in the mountainous areas near the Russian and Chinese borders. Due to distance, such a location provides protection from US and South Korean artillery and short- to mid-range missiles.

South Korea would, therefore, gain a significant strategic edge through possession of air-to-surface standoff missiles. It has been reported that the TAURUS missiles carry a 480-kilogram warhead capable of penetrating up to six metres of reinforced concrete, with an error margin of two to three metres. This would be a welcome boost for the South Koreans, given that North Korean targets are increasingly being fortified.

Finally, the TAURUS standoff capability could be decisive during a potential South Korea–Japan naval dispute concerning the Dokdo islets (known as Takeshima to the Japanese), or during a South Korea–China dispute around the Jeju maritime area. As South Korea has not yet acquired an aerial tanker, the ROK Air Force’s operational range has been restricted. Thus, the new missiles will help address this capability shortfall.

Soon Ho Lee has a PhD from the Department of Politics and International Studies, The University of Hull.

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