Korea’s missile projects that are supposed to protect the country from the North

This post was published in Defence24. The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.


WARSAW, (BM) – Preparing for the threats of today, but also of tomorrow, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) has been systematically investing in a number of missile systems for years – both for the defense of its territory and for a precise attack on the enemy. The goal is to achieve not only greater military potential, but also to build independence from the United States in terms of both operational and technological and industrial aspects.

The main reason why the Republic of Korea invests in military forces is, of course, the continuing threat from North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). Although it has outdated conventional troops, it also boasts extensive and dangerous missile forces, including artillery and ballistic missiles. The main problem for South Korea is that the capital city of Seoul is only 56 kilometers from the border. In the event of a war, it would be extremely difficult to defend the city against a North Korean attack, also by numerous long-range artillery.

From the perspective of South Korea, a potential challenge is also the growing power of China, which may become a threat in the future. Thirdly, although a war with Japan is very unlikely, Seoul – which will be discussed in more detail later – has tense relations with Tokyo and the improvement of bilateral relations, despite the efforts of the United States, is not expected. The Republic of Korea is also trying to prepare for possible crises in relations with Japan.

System assumptions

Faced with a wide range of threats, Seoul is pursuing a strategy of developing both defensive and offensive capabilities in three elements, originally known as 3K, and since 2017 and President Jae-in Moon’s decision as the “three-axis system”. The first is the so-called STS (Strategic Target Strike), formerly known as KC (Kill Chain). It should be understood as the ability to detect, identify and conduct a pre-emptive strike against North Korean artillery launchers and positions. This includes, for example, reconnaissance satellites that Seoul wants to have five by 2023, rockets and F-15K and F-35A planes. This element has no political dimension, which means that its aim is to neutralize North Korea’s offensive potential, not to overthrow the Pyongyang regime. The second is a layer formerly known as KAMD (Korean Air and Missile Defense), i.e. an extensive, multi-layer anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense. The name KMP (Korean Missile Defense) has been in force since 2019.

The third axis is known until recently as the KMPR (Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation) potential, and since 2019 as OR (Overwhelming Response). This is the range of capabilities of the Republic of Korea’s armed forces to precisely destroy North Korea’s critical infrastructure, including its political and military command. This element includes, for example, the launch of the Hyunmoo-2 (ballistic) and Hyunmoo-3 (maneuvering) missiles. These are also the German-Swedish Taurus KEPD 350K air-to-ground maneuvering missiles received in 2014-2016 (a total of 170 units + 90 more ordered in 2018), which, unlike the domestic systems, are better able to penetrate strong points, including installations underground. The activation of the full potential of the KMPR would take place after an earlier, massive attack by North Korea – especially with the use of nuclear weapons.

Pursuant to President Moon’s decision in 2017, expenditure on the “three-axle system” was to be increased by 14.5% to accelerate its launch from 2022 to 2020. This is linked to plans to transfer the so-called OPCON (operational control), hence operational control of the South Korean armed forces at war. These now would be led by the Americans. Under the discussed changes, the combined forces will in the future be commanded by a four-star South Korean general, while his deputy will be a four-star American general. This means increased autonomy for the South Korean armed forces.

Missile defense

An important element in building the military potential of South Korea is the KAMD / KMP initiative, i.e. the aforementioned anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense. Until the introduction of its own satellites, the South Korean system relies on American satellites, providing both recognition and early warning of missiles launched by Pyongyang. The data goes to the command center at the Osan Air Force Base, just over 60 km south of Seoul. The South Korean and American systems are integrated, but the two operate independently of each other, mainly for political reasons.

The basis of South Korean defense are PAC-2/3 batteries and developed own systems, including medium and long-range surface-to-air missiles. An important step in enhancing the potential is the modernization of the Patriot and native M-SAM Cheolmae-2 systems. As for the latter, Seoul is equipping them with new rockets (Block 2). Patriots, on the other hand, are equipped with PAC-3 MSE (Missile Segment Enhancement) missiles. The project to upgrade eight PAC-2 batteries to the PAC-3 standard was launched in December 2016 under a US $ 1.3 billion agreement in April 2014.

As part of the construction of KADM and the replacement of Nike-Hercules, South Korea jointly purchased 48 PAC-2 launchers in Germany, along with ATM (Anti-Tactical Missile) and GEM + (Guidance Enhanced Missile Plus) missiles. The first batch of 24 launchers went to Seoul in 2008. It is worth mentioning that at that time, for both financial and political reasons, the plan to acquire PAC-3 in the United States failed. In 2020, two launchers were deployed in central Seoul – one PAC-2 and one PAC-3. The Korean Times estimates that the Republic of Korea currently has 10 Patriot batteries (40 launchers), while the US military has eight PAC-3 batteries in the country. The launch of the PAC-3 MSE missiles is scheduled for 2021-2023.

M-SAM (also known as KM-SAM, Cheolmae-2 or Cheongung) is a mid-range system developed by the South Korean government’s Defense Development Agency (ADD – Agency for Defense Development), Samsung Thales, Hanwha, LIG ​​Nex1 and Doosan DST in cooperation with Russian companies Ałmaz-Antej and MKB Fakel. Work on it began in 1998, and the first battery was deployed to islands in the Yellow Sea in early 2016.

The battery consists of four launchers on the 8×8 vehicle, each with eight chambers, and a passive X-band radar station, technologically based on the S-400 system. It was developed as a successor to the obsolete 24 MIM-23 Hawk batteries, which the Republic of Korea started using in 1964. Cheolmae-2 with a length of 4.6 meters can intercept ballistic missiles at altitudes of up to 20 km. The maximum range is 40 km. The unit price of the rocket is approximately $ 1.3 million.

In April 2020, it was announced that the LIG Nex1 plants had provided the South Korean Air Force with Block 1 missiles, the primary task of which is to counter aircraft, while their ability to neutralize enemy missiles is limited. Deliveries started in 2015. It was also admitted that the company’s priority is currently the production of the Block 2 version, which will intercept enemy rockets at an altitude of up to 20 km with kinetic energy. Block 2 was announced in 2017. It was then that the production phase began. Unlike Block 1, for the Block 2 variant, capturing enemy ballistic missiles is the primary task.

In addition to M-SAM, the Republic of Korea is developing the L-SAM project, which is to provide its armed forces with long-range interceptor missiles. The estimated operating ceiling of the Cheolmae-4 battery is 40-60 kilometers. The range is a maximum of 150 km. The L-SAM, which, according to some, will be a development of the Russian 48N6 missile, is to be equipped with an accompanying S-band AESA radar, which is a development of the Russian 91N6E system. Thanks to its development, South Korea no longer needs to purchase the THAAD system in the United States, which has already been present in this country since April 2017 (one battery, six launchers – eight rockets each).

It is located in Seongju, so it does not protect Seoul, or the American forces near the border with North Korea (Camp Humphreys south of Seoul), but the Port of Busan, where support for the combatants would be directed in the event of a war. It is worth mentioning that in 2020 Beijing openly spoke out against the presence of American THAAD launchers in South Korea. Work on L-SAM is expected to be completed in 2022, with South Korea purchasing four batteries in the first phase. Thus, it is to be in service at the turn of 2023/2024.

An important element of KAMD are, of course, radar stations. South Korea has two EL / M-2080 Green Pine Block B radars, purchased in 2009. They have been in operation since 2012. Two more (Block C) were ordered in April 2017. The best solution, enhancing situational awareness and giving the opportunity to create a regional image, would be to integrate the South Korean network not only with the American one, which is already happening, but also with the Japanese and possibly with Taiwanese (Taipei has the PAVE PAWS long-range radar).

Nevertheless, while Japan and South Korea share a fear of North Korea and an alliance with the United States, relations between Seoul and Tokyo remain strained. It is precisely the reluctance to cooperate with Japan that makes subsequent South Korean governments refuse to combine their own missile defense with the American one, as this would mean exchanging data with Tokyo.

Seoul plans to purchase two early warning radars, as well as three additional Aegis destroyers, which are already integrated with ground systems, according to the plan announced in 2019, and wanting to strengthen its short-range (bottom floor) defense. As for the latter system, Seoul already has Aegis SPY-1D (V) radars on board three KDX-III destroyers (Sejong Wielki type), equipped with SM-2 Block IIA / B missiles. It is a variant of the Aegis Baseline 7 with a limited contribution to Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD), unable to intercept (also track) ballistic missiles. Only the next three ships mentioned above are to have the modern Baseline 9.C2 system (BMD 5.1). These units are planned for 2023, 2025 and 2027 and will be equipped with SM-3 missiles. If the first three Sejong Wielki ships were upgraded to the Baseline 9 version, then their SM-2 missiles would have limited anti-ballistic missile capability.

South Korea is considering purchasing an anti-aircraft and anti-missile SM-6 missile from the United States, which would strengthen the naval component of the currently rather weak anti-missile shield. In the case of the latter, the radius of the protection provided by this system would increase by up to 400 kilometers. As for the SM-2, in May 2019, Seoul obtained approval from the US Department of State to purchase up to 94 such missiles for USD 313.9 million.

It is worth mentioning that in December 2017, the United Arab Emirates talked with South Korea about military cooperation. One of the topics raised was the possibility of testing South Korean missiles on the territory of the former. It would be beneficial for the UAE, as KAMD is adapted to counter North Korean ballistic missiles – Abu Dhabi has to face a similar (Iranian) threat. The UAE is the perfect place to practice, according to South Korea, as there are many uninhabited areas and the country is experienced in using the Patriot system.

Soldier units

An important element of South Korea’s offensive capabilities are ballistic and maneuvering missiles, including the Haeseong family – Haeseong I anti-ship missiles with a range of 150 km (launched from the ground or water) or 250 km (launched from the air), Haeseong II maneuvering with a range of 500 km (launched from water) and Haeseong III with a range of 1.5 thousand kilometers (launched from submarines). These are also the NHK-2 (known as Nike Hercules Korea II), which are short-range ballistic missiles (250 km), already withdrawn from service.

Such structures are the result of the work of the domestic armaments industry, but Seoul uses the technology of third countries, mainly the United States and Russia, although both countries must take into account the provisions of the voluntary and informal missile technology control regime (MTCR – Missile Technology Control Regime), which is to prevent proliferation systems with a range of more than 300 km and a head of at least 500 kg. South Korea signed the MCTR in 2001.

South Korea is systematically increasing the parameters of its missiles. The limits are set by agreement with the United States. This is the result of a compromise in 1979, when Seoul agreed to abandon the idea of ​​its own nuclear weapons program, while Washington announced it would support South Korea’s ballistic missile projects. It was then established that they would not exceed the range of 180 km and the mass of the warhead above 300 kg. In 1997 these parameters were increased to 300 km and 500 kg, and in 2012 to 800 km and 500 kg. It was then agreed that the warhead could be larger in the case of rockets with a smaller range – a ton for rockets with a range of 500 km or 2 tons for a rocket with a range of 300 km. As a result of further nuclear tests by Pyongyang, President Donald Trump lifted the 500-kilogram warhead limit in 2017, which allows Seoul to develop missiles that can penetrate strengthened North Korean targets, including underground installations.

The new capabilities allowed the Republic of Korea to increase the range of the Hyunmoo-2 ballistic missiles mounted on the wheeled platform. The first variant, the Hyunmoo-2A, has a range of about 300 km and a warhead of 500 kg, which was a qualitative leap in comparison to the Hyunmoo-1. These missiles, introduced in the late 1980s, had a warhead of 480 kg and a range of 180 km. Hyunmoo-2A has been in active service since 2013. Two years later, Hyunmoo-2B with a range of 500 km and a warhead weighing 997 kg was tested. The variant with a range of 800 km with a 500 kg warhead, designated Hyunmoo-2C, was presented in 2017. According to the official announcement, Hyunmoo-2C is to be the basic instrument of the Kill Chain layer and, along with other missiles, will be the cornerstone of President Moon’s military strategy.

Hyunmoo rocket technologies serve South Korea to develop cruise missiles, including the family collectively known as the Hyunmoo-3. The Hyunmoo-3B model was presented in 2009, and its maximum range is about a thousand kilometers, while for the Hyunmoo-3A it is 500 km, and for the Hyunmoo-3C it is about 1.5 thousand km. The state of the project is unknown, but it is speculated that Seoul wants to introduce a variant with a range of 1.5 thousand kilometers, as well as a Hyunmoo-4 ballistic missile, equipped with a tonne warhead (according to other sources, even a two-ton). Two such rockets were tested in April 2020, but only one was successful. Its range is 800 km. The rockets are designed to destroy underground installations in South Korea, and the increase in the mass of the warhead was possible thanks to President Trump’s decision in 2017.

At the same time, South Korea is developing MLRS-class missile systems. Since 2004, 220 ATACMS have been introduced (110 x Block I and the same number of Block IA). The leading system, produced since 2014, is the K239 CHUN-MU on a wheeled platform (8×8). There are three main variants – a 12-rocket launcher of 227 mm / 239 mm caliber or up to 40 rockets of 130 mm caliber. Since 2015, they have been the basis of missile forces, which consistently use the M270 MRLS produced under the license. These 130mm rockets are used in the K136 Kooryong circular (6×6) 36-tube launchers, which have been in service since the 1980s. The Philippines ordered an unknown number of vehicles in December 2019.


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