By Jung Sung-ki
The country's comprehensive military modernization program has been under intense ``surgical operation,'' just three years after the ambitious plan was announced.
The Ministry of National Defense plans to announce a revised version of ``Defense Reform 2020,'' a flagship policy initiated by the previous, liberal Roh Moo-hyun government which put high emphasis on building an independent defense posture from the U.S. military, in October.
The primary reason for the drastic overhaul of the reform package is budget shortfalls, ministry officials and defense experts say.
Interim results on the reassessment of Defense Reform 2020 showed that the reform plan is unlikely to get sustainable financial support as originally expected, a defense ministry official said, asking to remain anonymous. ``It's natural when we cannot afford investments, there comes overall changes in priorities for the reform measures, including arms acquisition programs.''
Defense Reform 2020, aimed at building ``slimmer but stronger'' armed forces both with troop cuts and the introduction of high-tech weapons systems, was estimated to cost a whopping 621 trillion won (about $575 billion) based on the assumption that the country's gross domestic product (GDP) and government expenditures would grow in parallel at roughly 7.1 percent per year from 2006 to 2020.
In other words, the government anticipated the defense budget would grow by 9.9 percent a year from 2006 through 2010, then about 8.8 percent per year from 2011 through 2015, and then on average 1 percent per year from 2016 through 2020.
But the estimation has been proved quite wrong. The GDP did not grow at the rates projected over the past two years, maintaining an average of 4 percent.
Some defense analysts anticipate a further decrease in defense expenditure in the coming years, citing a recent announcement by the government to reduce its growth forecast for this year to below 5 percent amid the global slowdown and soaring oil prices.
Others say the planned 621 trillion defense budget will be short by 110 trillion won as a result.
``The defense budget for next year is expected to stand at around 6.9 percent, down 3 percentage points from the original estimation. That means we can't even achieve the initial goals in the defense reform,'' said Kim Kyung-deok, head of the ministry's defense reform bureau.
He held a meeting with chief policymakers from the governing Grand National Party over the revision of the reform plan Aug. 7.
Setbacks in Arms Procurements
A case in point for problems arising from financial constraints is the back-and-forth stance by the Seoul government over the purchase of U.S. Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
South Korea had persistently sought to buy four Global Hawks by 2011 in bids to develop its independent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities for the planned transition of wartime operational control of South Korean troops from the United States to South Korean commanders in 2012.
The Global Hawk is regarded as the world's most sophisticated high-altitude UAV. It can survey vast areas with near pinpoint accuracy from as high as 65,000 feet for up to 35 straight hours, which means the aircraft is very useful in monitoring North Korea's suspected activities. The per-unit price is $45 million to $ 60 million.
It was difficult for South Korea to get the weapons systems, however, due to a global arms control regime that restricts overseas sales of aircraft, ballistic missiles or other delivery systems that could be used for chemical, biological and nuclear attacks.
Now the shoe is on the other foot.
In the face of the radical revision of the 15-year defense reform initiative, the economic-minded Lee Myung-bak administration is having second thoughts on the purchase, while this time the United States is asking South Korea to buy the aircraft.
U.S. officials offered to sell the Global Hawk during working-level talks with South Korean counterparts in Washington, D.C., saying it can sell the product via a ``government-to-government guarantee'' mechanism detouring the overseas sales ban under the Missile Technology Control Regime.
However, several ministry sources hint that the government is expected to drop the Global Hawk pursuit due mainly to budget constraints. Instead, they say, South Korea will invest more in an indigenous program to develop medium-altitude UAVs.
Against this backdrop, some speculate that the target year for the defense reform would be readjusted to around 2025.
A defense ministry spokesman did not exclude the possibility of delaying the target year.
``We're reviewing all options on the table based on the principle of `force improvements before reducing troops.' But we don't have any fixed plan yet to delay the target year,'' he said.
Defense Reform 2020 calls for reducing the country's troop level by some 180,000 to 500,000 until 2020 in stages, while acquiring state-of-the-art weaponry to fill the possible security gap from the troop cuts and improving the welfare of soldiers.
The plan is also aimed at streamlining the Army-dominated military structure. Under the plan, the number of Army corps is to be reduced from 10 to six, and that of Army divisions is to be cut from the current 47 to around 20.
Defense Readiness Against N. Korea
But the effectiveness of such plans has been in question in terms of the changing security situations, particularly the defense readiness against the 1.1-million-strong North Korean troops armed with asymmetrical military capabilities of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
In fact, the defense reform was announced a year before Pyongyang conducted its first-ever nuclear test.
``In 2005, the level of North Korea's military threat was relatively low amid a reconciliation mood between the two Koreas. But since the nuclear test in October 2006, the threats posed by North Korea's missile and nuclear programs have increased, aggravating the security condition on the Korean Peninsula,'' the ministry's defense reform bureau chief said.
Critics also say the defense reform did not include required arms procurement plans and security measures for Seoul's takeover of wartime operational control, which was agreed early last year.
Under the landmark accord on command rearrangement plans, South Korean field commanders will execute independent operational control of their troops during wartime, beginning April 17, 2012, with the U.S military shifting to a supporting role under the agreement. The Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) is subsequently to be deactivated.
For that command transfer, high-tech weapons systems, especially intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, are essential.
South Korea handed over peacetime and wartime operational control to the U.S.-led United Nations Command at the outbreak of the 1950-53 Korean War. The command authority was transferred to the CFC in 1978. Seoul took over peacetime control in 1994.