By Lee Tae-hoon
Despite its continuous efforts to beef up air defense capabilities, officials acknowledge that South Korea remains highly vulnerable to growing nuclear and missile threats from North Korea.
Seoul will be unable to properly counter North Korea¡¯s ballistic missiles capable of carrying chemical or even nuclear warheads for the next 10 years, Noh Dae-lae, the head of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), admitted in a National Assembly audit late September.
In 2007, the South Korean military purchased 48 secondhand Patriot Advanced Capability-2 (PAC-2) systems from Germany, rather than new PAC-3 units largely due to budget constraints, but their ability to intercept North Korean missiles is limited.
¡°Earlier versions of patriot systems were designed to counter air-breathing targets, things with engines in them, such as jets and helicopters, fixed wing aircraft,¡±said Morri Leland, director of International Business Development at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control.
¡°But threats have evolved and now there is a need to counter theater-ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and air-breathing missiles.¡±
The PAC-2 interceptor is designed to maneuver close to the incoming target and detonate its explosive fragmentation warhead, but it is optimized primarily for engagements against aircraft with limited capability to deter missiles.
¡°Don¡¯t be fooled, don¡¯t be misled. Old missiles cannot counter cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and theater missiles,¡±he said.
With regard to the growing call to improve air defense capability here, Leland said his company stands ready to assist South Korea in the upgrade of the existing Patriot equipment to PAC-3 capability.
¡°Lockheed Martin is willing to provide a Launcher Modification Kit (LMK) that is required to upgrade a PAC-2 Launcher to a PAC-3 Launcher,¡± Leland said.
¡°Upgrading Korea¡¯s Patriot equipment will be the fastest, most affordable, and lowest risk way to ensure defense against today¡¯s most sophisticated threats.¡±
An industry source said refurbishing Korea¡¯s existing PAC-2 systems to the PAC-3 (Configuration 3) would cost approximately $350 million, or about one third of $1 billion that Korea paid to procure the used ones.
The PAC-3 missile is widely viewed as the world¡¯s most advanced, capable and powerful theater air defense missile. It is designed for hit-to-kill performance utilizing an accurate millimeter wave seeker combined with an agile airframe.
¡°Prior to the introduction of hit-to-kill technologies, the tradition for air defense was to try to get close enough to the target to knock it off course with blast fragmentation affects,¡± he said. ¡°However, this did not destroy the target.¡±
The official argued the hit-to-kill missile provides the best defense against hostile ballistic and cruise missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), adding that the PAC-3 is also highly effective against fixed and rotary winged aircraft.
He also pointed out that PAC-3 missiles can significantly increase the Patriot system¡¯s firepower, given that 16 PAC-3s load on a Patriot launcher, compared with four Patriot PAC-2 missiles on a legacy system.
¡°Korea has legacy Patriot equipment which is currently incapable of firing the PAC-3 interceptor,¡± Leland said. ¡°This leaves the Korean Peninsula vulnerable to many current and developing threats from nearby adversaries.¡±
The PAC-3 system is currently fielded by the U.S. Army as well U.S. allies including Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, the United Arab Emirates and Taiwan.
Lockheed Martin successfully conducted the first hit-to-kill intercept in 1984 and PAC-3 has achieved more than 22 successful test flights since 1994.
However, he noted that what is often neglected in reporting is that there is not one solution to all threats and Korea should consider introducing THAAD, which is designed to complement the PAC-3 against longer-range threats.
PAC-3¡¯s greatest strength lies in its ability to intercept missiles with shorter ranges and operate in the low endo-atmosphere, whereas THAAD is capable of flying faster and higher in the mid-to-high endo-atmosphere where the atmosphere is thinner or in the exo-atmosphere (outside the atmosphere).
¡°PAC-3 is designed to operate in the low endo-atmosphere and use the atmosphere for maneuvering and changing direction very quickly,¡± he said.
¡°The former is capable of enduring high stresses and heating in the lower part of the atmosphere, whereas THAADs can fly higher and farther away, and thus more suitable for longer-range ballistic missiles.¡±
Leland said that he believes Korea should take a ¡°layered approach¡± in introducing anti-missile technologies, given that the country is facing a growing need to intercept North Korean missiles with WMDs as far away as possible.
The South Korean military plans to begin production of indigenous Cheolmae-2 missiles, but like PAC-2, they are primarily designed to defend against aircraft, rather than tactical ballistic missiles and cruise missiles armed with WMDs.
Seoul has recently announced its ambitious plan to develop its own version of the Patriot missile system to intercept North Korean ballistic missiles, but experts say it would take at least five to 10 years to accomplish it.
Kim Young-san, head of DAPA¡¯s guided missile department, says that the military has yet to secure a budget for upgrading PAC-2 or buying PAC-3 or THAAD, but will seek to balance the import of foreign technology and indigenous development.
¡°We plan to develop and secure our own missile defense technology, but at the same time are acutely aware that we will likely need help from foreign countries in securing core technologies or filling a possible security gap.¡±
In this regard, Leland suggested that Korea closely work together with Lockheed Martin to meet its own goals without having to make the huge capital investment that the U.S. government and his company have already made.
¡°Hit-to-kill technology is extremely sophisticated,¡± he said. ¡°If Korea chooses to take the same type of investment that is their choice, but it should be noted that it is a technology that we have proven to exist. It¡¯s proven in combat and it is there now.¡±