Despite the unfolding peace dialogue and reduction of military tensions on Korean Peninsula, South Korea still needs to enhance its military capabilities, what is also a part of "Defense Reform 2.0" aspirations. This doesn't necessary relate to quantitative buildup or acquirement of offensive weapon systems, but focuses on a “generational change” in technologies and comprehensive modernization of the equipment. One of the fields of interest for Korea in this regard is improvement of its naval warfare capabilities, including naval aviation forces.The primary purpose of the ROK’s naval aviation is to ensure anti-submarine defense in relatively small coastal areas in Yellow Sea, Sea of Japan and Korean Strait. After 2010 Cheonan incident, North Korean submarine fleet became a relevant threat both for South’s decision-makers and public opinion: although it mostly consists of obsolete and small midget submarines, it remains numerous and quite effective in littoral zones of Yellow Sea. DPRK has been reportedly working on its submarine-launched ballistic missile program in recent years (and successfully test fired several Pukkuksong missiles in 2015-2017), and despite the expected limitation of military maneuvers in buffer zones at sea, which are established according to September 2018 inter-Korean Military Agreement, anti-submarine warfare preserves its significance for ROK.
What ROK has now
South Korea has two major types of naval aircraft: fixed-wing patrol aircrafts and patrol helicopters, both configured for anti-submarine warfare. The aircraft fleet is rather old-fashioned and needs upgrading, especially in terms of radar technologies. As for particular models of aircraft, South Korea currently possesses the following:
- 8 P-3C Orion and 8 P-3CK Orion – modifications of P-3 Orion, designed by Lockheed precisely to conduct anti-submarine operations. ROK tries to upgrade these aircrafts, but the purchase of successor model is apparently a more preferable option;
- 5 Cessna F406 Caravan II – light transport aircraft, operated by South Korea since the late 1990s;
- 11 Lynx MK99 and 12 Lynx MK99A – the key force of ROK’s naval aviation, multipurpose helicopters equipped with anti-submarine radars. Both models, however, are expected to be replaced by different aircraft as well;
- 8 AW159 Wildcat – improved version of Lynx helicopter, most modern model among the rest of Korean naval aircraft;
- 3 Sud-Aviation Alouette III, 8 UH-60P and 7 UH-1 Iroquois – classic helicopters, playing a supporting role.
What ROK is planning to acquire
As mentioned before, two points of interest for South Korea are fixed-wing aircrafts and helicopters, and two relevant overseas acquisition programs have started under the aegis of ROK’s DAPA (Defense Acquisition Program Administration) and ADD (Agency for Defense Development).The plan to purchase some new maritime patrol aircrafts (MPAs) was initially announced at least in 2015 and reiterated on Feb. 2, 2018, when DAPA expressed the intention to complete the purchase by 2020. According to the plan, the new model is expected to be able to carry more weapons in comparison with P-3 Orion.Three companies have become the participants of the tender on the supply of MPAs for Korean Navy - Airbus D&S, Boeing and SAAB. Airbus D&S introduced their C295MPA, which constitutes a redesigned C295 transport aircraft. C295MPA is equipped with RDR-1400C radar system with the range of 340 km, flies with maximum speed of 480 km/h at range of about 5370 km and carries lightweight Mark 46 torpedoes, which all makes this aircraft not the best option for ROK. Boeing was ready to trade its Poseidon P-8A with maximum speed of 907 km/h, capable to act within the range of 7500 km, and expectedly equipped with AN/APY-10 radar and Harpoon anti-ship missiles. Derived from Boeing 737, Poseidon P-8A is considered to be a decent substitute for Korean P-3C Orions. The third option was SAAB Swordfish, the MPA based on Global 6000 business jet with the cruising range of 9600 km and maximum speed of 945 km/h. Swordfish could be attractive for ROK due to the use of Active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar technology and possible equipping with the Blue Shark anti-submarine torpedoes.In addition to announced competitive tender, South Korea apparently had an extra proposal from UAE. In May 2018, director of defense industry-related EAIG investment company Hussain Ibrahim Al Hammadi paid an unofficial visit to ROK, during which he met with Defense Minister Song Young-moo and ADD representatives. As some pundits believe, parties could have been discussing the issues of technological exchange, including MPA purchase by ROK: UAE was considering an opportunity of brokering the deal between ROK and SAAB to acquire SAAB Swordfish in exchange of Korea’s participation in co-production of Global Eye radars. However, such option was unlikely to be realized, not to mention South Korean public attention to any business with Abu Dhabi in the light of “secret UAE – ROK military deal” revealed earlier this year.The results of tender were finally confirmed in mid-September, and it was declared that ROK is going to purchase 6 Poseidon P-8A and auxiliary equipment for 2.1 billion dollars. The purchase, besides aircraft, includes MIDS JTRS communication system, LN-251 INS/GPS navigator system, AN/AAR-57 early warning radar. The deal can be assessed as most viable in comparison with other possible ones due to P-8A’s remarkable anti-submarine qualities and Korean pilots’ experience in operating predecessor P-3C model, even though it turned out to be more expensive than Seoul previously expected.With regard to procurement of patrol helicopters, ROK announced another tender for supply, which started a competition among three companies. Leonardo (previously branded as AgustaWestland) presented AW159 Wildcat, currently operated by ROK, NH Industries presented NH90 Syrian, Sikorsky – MH-60R Seahawk. All three models were expected to be equipped with Blue Shark and dipping sonar, but Wildcat is really superior to remaining two in terms of max speed: Wildcat can operate within 777 km distance at 311 km/h, while NH90’s characteristic are around 291 km/h and 907 km and MH-60R’s – 267 km/h and 834 km. But what’s more important, Wildcat is undoubtedly a favorite for Korean military – it has outperformed other competitors in previous years’ contests and obviously has convinced Koreans in its superiority.On Sep. 28, the purchase of 12 AW159 Wildcats was finally confirmed. The price of the deal will probably fit in 1.6 billion dollars according to the initial ROK’s requirement, and Leonardo turned out to be the only company which had accepted it and submitted its proposal. The helicopters are planned to be supplied by 2020 and thus the second stage of acquirement will be completed with the total number of 20 Wildcats.
What problems ROK is facing
Whereas aircraft purchase seems profitable for Korean Navy and the aircrafts are very convenient in terms of interoperability between ROK and its allies, some points of consideration nevertheless occur. Korea still needs to upgrade its aging auxiliary naval aviation, i.e. transport aircrafts, and this matter hasn’t even yet become a subject of governmental discussion. But more crucially, Korea is facing now a problem of technical safety: before the introduction of the first batch of AW159s in 2016, a special DAPA’s expert group has conducted the tests of the helicopters and presented the fake reports with deliberate distortion of Wildcats actual characteristics afterwards. Such case has drawn an attention to any new procurements, and in the light of recent KAI Marineon helicopter crash (which was caused by the defective part from foreign manufacturer), Korea should really carry out any possible checkups to restore the credibility of foreign military equipment safety standards.