Armed Forces Overviews
South Korea

Republic of Korea Armed Forces

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Other Forces
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By Marco Pennings

 

History

According to the Koreans, the first of their kin was born in 2333 BC. Scientists with slightly less respect for Korean mythology believe Korea was first inhabited around 30,000 BC, when tribes from central and northern Asia stumbled on the peninsula. Under constant pressure from China, these tribes banded together to found a kingdom in the 1st century AD. By 700 AD the Silla Kingdom of Korea was hitting its cultural stride, littering the country with palaces, pagodas and pleasure gardens and influencing the development of Japan's culture. But in the early 13th century the Mongols reached Korea and gave it their customary scorched-earth treatment. When the Mongol Empire collapsed, the Choson Dynasty took over and a Korean script was developed.

In 1592 Japan invaded, followed by China - the Koreans were routed and the Chinese Manchu Dynasty moved in. Turning its back on the mean and nasty world, Korea closed its doors to outside influence until the early 20th century, thus presaging the events of the twentieth century.

Japan invaded the peninsula in 1904, and officially annexed it in 1910. The Japanese, who hung on until the end of WWII, were harsh masters, and anti-Japanese sentiment was strong. After the war, the USA occupied the south of the peninsula, while the communist USSR took over the north. Elections to decide the fate of the country were held only in the south, and when the south declared its independence, the north invaded on June 25, 1950. The ensuing war lasted until July 27, 1953 when a cease-fire went into effect.

By the time the war ended, two million people had died and the country had been officially divided. After a few years of semi-democracy in the South, martial law was declared in 1972. The next 15 years rollercoastered between democracy and repressive martial law, hitting a low on May 26, 1980 when 200 student protesters (by some accounts even 3000 people) were killed by ROK Paratroopers and Army in the Gwangju massacre. Two of the Generals leading the troops were Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, both future Presidents.

By the late 1980s the country was at flashpoint - student protests were convulsing the country and workers all over Korea were walking off the job to join them. Among the demands were democratic elections, freedom of the press and the release of political prisoners. The government wasn't budging and civil war looked imminent until, to everyone's jaw-dropping surprise, President Chun suddenly decided that everything the protesters were asking for was all right by him.

In 1988 - the year Seoul hosted the Olympic Games - elections were held and Roh Tae-woo was elected president. Student protests continued apace, but, contrary to expectations, Roh significantly freed up the political system. Relations were re-established with China and the Soviet Union. In 1992, Roh was replaced by Kim Young-sam and his Democratic Liberal Party. Kim's hobbyhorse was corruption, and during his term of office several politicians were prosecuted for abusing the system. Most notably, ex-presidents Chun and Roh were brought to book for their role in the Gwangju massacre. Roh was sentenced to 22 years, Chun to death, but in December 1997, Kim granted them a presidential pardon and the two were released from prison. 1997 was a very bad year for South Korea's economy, with the won taking a tumble and tourism dropping dramatically. In February 1998, former dissident Kim Dae-jung became president, the first time a non-conservative had headed the country in its 50 years of independence. Kim promised to introduce economic and democratic reforms and improve relations with North Korea.

Making good on promises of more neighbourly relations with North Korea, Kim made an historic visit to shake the hand of reclusive North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, in June 2000. As a sign of good faith he allowed the North Korean government to arrange for his security. In October 2000 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and as part of a partnership with Japan and the USA continues to pursue a policy of cooperation with North Korea.

After a tumultuous 20th century, South Korea is by any measure shaping up to be one of the star performers of the 21st century. Its top companies such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai make products the world wants. Koreans have taken so quickly to the internet that it is now possibly the most wired nation on earth. The single anachronism in Korea’s progress, however, remains the continuing dispute over the North’s nuclear programs. The Clinton and Bush administrations pursued very different policies, with Clinton’s people talking directly to the North and getting an eight-year freeze on its plutonium facility, and a near buy-out of its medium and long-range missiles in late 2000. The Bush administration refused bilateral talks with the North and placed it in an ‘axis of evil’ along with Iraq and Iran. The North responded by saying it feared a US attack along the lines of the invasion of Iraq and needed a nuclear deterrent to stop it.

Deeply worried about the possibility of conflict, in 2003 China sponsored six-party talks (China, Japan, Russia, the US and both Koreas) to get Washington and Pyongyang talking and negotiating. These intermittent discussions have yet to yield a significant result. On the contrary, the North has successfully tested nuclear bombs, first in October 2006, then again in May 2009. Towards the end of the same year the North began to make gestures that it was willing to re-enter negotiations over its nuclear program.

US President Barack Obama’s brief visit to South Korea in November 2009 saw him and President Lee again offer the carrot of economic aid to the North if they returned to international negotiations on nuclear issues. Obama also squeezed a concession from Lee that South Korea would revisit the terms of the proposed free trade agreement with the US so that both countries may move towards ratifying the deal.

On 23 November 2010, North and South Korea exchanged artillery fire along their disputed frontier opposite the small island of Yeonpyeong, which houses South Korean military installations and a small civilian population, raising tensions between the rivals to their highest level in more than a decade.

(Source: Lonely Planet)

Republic of Korea Air Force / Han Guk Gong Gun

The beginning The Air Force has its roots in the Air Force Foundation Committee, formed in 1943 to train Korean pilots in China for the war against Japan. Shortly after the war, the first South Korean military aircraft included former Japanese types such as the Ki-86 Cypress and Ki-9 Spruce. In August 1946 all aviation related organisations were concentrated in the Korean Aviation Establishment Committee. In May 1948 the US helped form an aviation element under the control of the Ministry of Defence, equipped with the L-4 and L-5. On January 14, 1949 the Aviation Academy was established at Gimpo (then known as Kimpo).

Under pressure of Chinese and Japanese pilots, the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF), or Han Guk Gong Gun was separated from the South Korean Army on October 1, 1949 on a personal initiative of President Syng-Man Rhee. This was deemed essential in order to preserve the unique identity of pilots during a power struggle within the Army. General Kim Chung Yul became the first ROKAF Chief of Staff with 400 officers and 1500 enlisted men under his command. Eight Piper L-4s, four Stinson L-5s and ten Noorduyn T-6 Harvards were obtained from US depots in Japan, the latter being taken on charge at Yoido Air Base in May 1950 as "National Foundation Aircraft".

War

The strained relationship with its communist neighbour exploded into war on June 25, 1950 when North Korean troops invaded the South, and most of the ROKAF equipment was destroyed by Yak's in a single air raid on Seoul Municipal Airport, leaving only three fly worthy Harvards. Ten F-51 Mustangs were transferred as emergency aid by US President Truman, flying their first combat mission on August 6, 1950. In order to train the ROKAF pilots on their new mounts, the 6146 Base Unit (BASUT) was established with USAF instructor pilots. On August 1, 1951 the ROKAF formed its first operational F-51D unit, the 1 FW at Sachon. On July 27, 1953 an uneasy cease-fire went into effect, and until the present day both countries remain technically at war and are only separated by the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).

Expansion

Shortly after the war pilot training was performed on the Cessna L-19, Ryan L-17 Navion and T-6 Harvard. An expansion program was started in 1955 and on 20 June the first of over 130 F-86Fs and twelve RF-86Fs was transferred to the ROKAF. These F-86Fs replaced the Mustangs with the 10 FW at Gimpo and formed the 101 FS, 102 FS and 103 FS. In 1958 the 11 FW/111 FS and 112 FS were also formed at Gimpo on the F-86F. In August 1955 the T-33 entered service and at least 65 were received. That same month additional AT-6D/Fs started arriving with more LT-6Gs following in 1958, eventually bringing the total number of Harvards received to over 70. In May 1955 the C-46 started to arrive and a total of 28 were delivered until 1968. The last of over 200 R/T/F-51D Mustangs was phased out in 1957. In December 1961 the 10 FW/108 FS and 109 FS became operational at Suwon on the all-weather F-86D of which at least 50 had been received.

Early helicopters were the two UH-19Ds delivered in April 1958 for SAR duties, years later followed by five HH-19Bs. Pilot training got a boost when on December 20, 1960 the T-28 Trojan was taken on charge, with a total of 34 delivered. On April 30, 1965 a new fighter entered the inventory as the 10 FW/105 FS at Suwon received the first F-5A/Bs. A total of 88 F-5As en 19 F-5Bs were received between 1965 and 1972, and at least nine RF-5As from 1972. On January 23, 1968 the spy ship USS Pueblo and her 82 sailors were captured by North Vietnam, and that same high-tension year South Korea ordered a batch of eighteen F-4Ds. On August 25, 1969 the first six F-4Ds destined for the 11 FW/151 FS at Daegu arrived in Seoul. Late 1972 under US program Enhance Plus a total of 36 F-5As were transferred to South Vietnam. Some of these returned a few years later after the fall of Saigon, as part of a transfer of nineteen ex-VNAF F-5As. In turn the 11 FW/110 FS at Daegu received eighteen ex-3 TFW F-4Ds, first on loan but they were transferred to the ROKAF in 1975.

1974 was a busy year for the ROKAF. An additional sixteen F-5B's were delivered that year, in September fourteen O-2A FAC's were received and from November 1974 the more modern F-5E (126 received) and F-5F (20 received) came into service forming some ten squadrons. In 1975 some twenty T-41Bs went to the Air Force Academy. From September 1977 a total of 37 new F-4Es were received under program Peace Pheasant II, and they formed the 11 FW/152 FS at Daegu, followed by the 153 FS at Cheongju where these squadrons formed the 17 FW in June 1979. Not only new fighters were introduced, in August 1973 the venerable C-123 Provider entered service replacing the C-46 and at least fifteen C-123J/K were received between 1973 and 1977. They served next to another old lady, the Skymaster of which some seventeen C-54D/E/G models were active from early 1965. In June 1975 three EC-47Qs came into service, but they may have been withdrawn from use in 1978. In June 1973 the first of 26 new T-37Cs greatly enhanced ROKAF pilot training, followed in 1982 by 42 ex Brazilian machines. At least 28 ex-VNAF A-37Bs were received from October 1976.

The 80s and 90s

Although a large number of new aircraft entered service between 1965 and 1980, this was not all to replace older equipment as the C-54, F-86, T-28 and T-33 still soldiered on in second-line duties. The next fifteen years would see a slow but steady modernisation process picking up pace in the new millennium. In 1980 a licence agreement was signed between Northrop and the Hanjin Corporation (Korean Airlines) for the assembly of a modified F-5E/F, locally known as the KF-5E/F and named Chegong (Skymaster). Between September 1982 and 1986 a total of 48 KF-5Es and twenty KF-5Fs were received and they equipped three squadrons (101 FS, 201 FS and 207 FS). FMS program Peace Bridge I finally brought state-of-the-art technology to South Korea as 30 F-16Cs and ten F-16Ds formed 161 FS and 162 FS with the 11 FW at Daegu from April 1986. In 1992 these squadrons moved to Jungwon and formed 19 FW. The arrival of the F-16s was insufficient to fulfil ROKAF expansion plans, and as a stopgap measure more F-4s were acquired. 24 ex-USAF Pave Spike F-4Ds formed 11 FW/159 FS at Daegu early 1988 and also in 1988 10 FW/156 FS was formed at Suwon with eighteen ex-USAF F-4Es. From December 1990 another 36 ex-USAF F-4Es followed and 17 FW/157 FS was formed at Cheongju. Total F-4 deliveries are circa 92 F-4Ds and 103 F-4Es. In 1990 the small reconnaissance force was expanded as eighteen ex-USAF RF-4Cs entered service with 10 FW/39 TRG/ 131 TRS at Suwon.

On April 28, 1989 the T-28 Trojan was finally withdrawn from use, followed by the T-33 in 1992. In March 1992 the C-54 was retired, and probably a year later the C-123 was also withdrawn from use. In return four C-130H and eight C-130H-30 transports entered service from Januari 1988 followed by twenty CN235s from November 1993. The T-33 was replaced by twenty Hawk Mk67s from September 1992, and these advanced jet trainers are locally known as the T-59.

In the ambitious Korean Fighter Program (formerly the F-X program), the F-16 was beaten by the F/A-18 and in December 1989 the government announced an order for 120 Hornets to be built in South Korea. Unfortunately financial hurdles made the deal fall through and eighty F-16Cs and forty F-16Ds were ordered instead. These Peace Bridge II aircraft are designated KF-16C/D and are locally known as Boramae (Falcon). First deliveries were by LMTAS on December 2, 1994, followed by aircraft that were at first assembled and later manufactured by Samsung Aerospace. These deliveries allowed 159 FS to relinquish the F-4D, and form 155 FS, both with the 19 FW at Jungwon. At Seosan the 20 FW was formed and 120 FS became operational on the KF-16C/D on June 18, 1997. This squadron was followed by 121 FS, 123 FS and 157 FS (ex F-4E), with final deliveries on April 19, 2000.

Although over the years several helicopters had entered service in small numbers, like the AS332L, UH-1B/N and Bell 212/412, they played only a small role in the ROKAF. In December 1991 the HH-47D was received for Special Operations and SAR tasks, and six were delivered to 235 SRS at Cheongju. Co-located 233 CSRS received an undisclosed number of UH-60Ps in the early 90's, and uses them for Combat SAR duties. There is more movement on the trainer front. Because no more Hawks were bought after the first batch of twenty, an advanced jet trainer capacity gap resulted until the arrival of the locally designed T-50. To fill this gap the ROKAF leased thirty T-38A Talons for five years, the first of which arrived with the 16 FW at Yecheon on March 25, 1999.

The New Millennium

For ab-initio training the ROKAF needed a replacement for the T-41 and T-37, and the KTX-1 project was started. This resulted in the KAI designed KT-1 Wong Bee which entered service with 3 TW at Sacheon on November 3, 2000. A total of 85 aircraft were delivered, and on January 17, 2004 the last T-37s were withdrawn from use by 213 FTS.

For tactical reconnaissance, surveillance and SIGINT tasks, eight BAe125-800SIG/RA were bought and subsequently delivered in 2000. ROKAF calls them RC-800s and they are based at Seongnam, possibly with 125 TRS. In July 2000 a repeat order for fourteen KF-16Cs and six KF-16Ds was placed, the first of which was handed over to 20 FW on June 25, 2003. As part of repaying an outstanding Russian debt, RSK MiG delivered 23 lightweight multipurpose IL-103s to the ROKAF. Locally known as the T-103, deliveries started in June 2004 and in July the first were accepted by 212 FTS of the Air Force Academy. The T-41B was finally retired on 28 November 2006.

The replacement of the aging fleet of F-5A/B and T-38A advanced jet- and lead-in fighter trainers was high on the ROKAF agenda and has resulted in the T-50/A-50 Golden Eagle project. This advanced supersonic jet trainer started as the KTX-2 project, and after initial delays KAI attracted a foreign partner in the shape of the LMTAS division of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics. Full-scale development started in 1997 and first flight from the KAI factory at Sacheon took place on August 20, 2002. The first production aircraft was rolled-out on August 30, 2005 and so far fifty aircraft have been delivered to 203 FTS (ex 203 FS with F-5E/F at Wonju) followed by 189 FTS (ex T-38A at Yecheon) of 1 FW at Gwangju. The last T-38s of 16 FW returned to the US from Yecheon in late 2009. The A-37B was retired by 238 FS in June 2007 and 239 SFS/Black Eagles in October 2007, both with 8 FW at Wonju. 239 SFS/Black Eagles was reformed on the T-50 in 2009, using aircraft on loan from 1 FW. They returned to Wonju in December 2010 with ten new T-50B (aerobatics-modified) aircraft. June 2007 also saw the retirement of 132 TRS at Suwon, flying the iconic RF-5A and the last F-5A/Bs. 115 FTS (ex T-38A) was reactivated at Yecheon on October 4, 2010, and will receive the TA-50 lead-in fighter trainer (LIFT).

Heavier metal comes in the shape of the F-15K Slam Eagle of which 21 are on order following the delivery of forty aircraft between late 2005 and late 2008. The first two aircraft arrived at Seongnam on October 7, 2005. At Gwangju, the F-5A/Bs were withdrawn from use on August 3, 2005 and 122 FS and 102 FS reformed at Daegu on the F-15K. Retirement of the F-4D was initiated by the disbandment of 110 FS on September 28, 2007. Official retirement followed on June 16, 2010 when 151 FS made its last flight. 151 FS has now reformed as the third F-15K squadron with 11 FW at Daegu.

Re-distribution of the F-5E/F fleet took place in 2006. 203 FS flying the F-5E/F at Wonju became the first T-50 unit at Gwangju in July 2006. 111 FS at Gunsan replaced their F-5E/Fs with KF-16C/Ds in November 2006. The KAI KA-1 is the armed version of the KT-1 trainer, and has a Forward Airborne Controller (FAC) and Counter-Insurgency (COIN) role. On December 17, 2003 ROKAF signed a contract for twenty aircraft. The first aircraft was presented on July 27, 2005 and first deliveries to replace the O-2As of 237 TCS at Seongnam took place in August. The O-2A was retired in December 2006.

In 2004, the VHX competition for three large VIP helicopters worth $113 million was started. This resulted in three VCH-92s which entered service with 296 squadron at Seongnam on October 16, 2007. On June 22, 2004 the first of seven Ka-32A-04s for 235 SRS at Cheongju was delivered. These Ka-32s, locally known as HH-32A, were produced by the Kumertau Aviation Production Enterprise and bought by the South Korean firm LGI. They are equipped with IAI Lahav supplied avionics and replace the UH-1N retired by 6 SRG on June 30, 2004.

And finally, after 57 years, the ROKAF introduced a new roundel in April 2005.

The Near Future

ROKAF is in the middle of a major modernization process. Although the F-15Ks and KF-16s are cutting edge 4th generation fighters, a large part of the ROKAF fighter-force is still 30+ years old; 131 TRS with RF-4C (ca 16 aircraft), 152 FS, 153 FS and 156 FS with F-4E (ca 70 aircraft) and 103 FS, 105 FS, 112 FS, 202 FS, 205 FTS and 206 FS with the F-5E/F (ca 130 aircraft). Disregarding the three squadrons of the somewhat younger KF-5E/F, this is a total of some 210 aircraft to be replaced in the near future. Models based on the T-50, like a single-seat F-50 fighter, are seen as possible replacements for the F-5/F-4E and old F-16s, while 22 A-50s are expected to replace the A-37B.

Mid 2010, Boeing received a license to export the stealthy F-15 Silent Eagle (SE) to South Korea. South Korea is expected to issue a request for proposals for the F-X3 contract for sixty stealth fighters in the first quarter of 2011. The F-15SE will compete with the Lockheed Martin F-35 and Eurofighter Typhoon for the contract. In addition, plans for a home-grown stealth fighter remain on the table. Also in 2010, the state-funded Agency for Defence Development (ADD) displayed a model of the Tactical EO/IR Reconnaissance System, which will be loaded onto the KF-16, turning them into RF-16s that will replace the RF-4C of 131 TRS at Suwon in coming years. South Korea also aims to have two new, advanced signals-intelligence aircraft flying near North Korea by 2014.

The Ministry of Defence revealed its plans for the E-X project, which was the procurement of four Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft for ROKAF, on February 4, 2004. The first Boeing 737-7ES or E-737 Peace Eye aircraft was accepted by Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) for modifications on February 9, 2010. KAI will equip the plane with Northrop Grumman’s L-band Multi-Role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar before handing it over to ROKAF in 2011. Deliveries should be completed in 2012 when South Korea will take over wartime operational control of their troops from the US military.

Mid August 2010, Boeing proposed an executive version of its 747-8 commercial airliner for South Korea's new presidential jet. Boeing is on track to win the presidential plane contract after rival EADS dropped out of bidding. Boeing submitted a sole bid for the contract worth up to 400 billion won ($338 million). South Korea plans to buy a presidential jet by 2014 to replace its presidential B737 put into service in 1985. Currently, President Lee Myung-bak is using a Boeing 747-400 for overseas trips under a five-year lease contract with Korean Air.

A possible sale of about ten C-130Js by 2016 has hit a snag due to a disagreement on the price of the product. In 2009, the C-130J model was selected as the sole candidate for the 725 bilion won ($606 million) program to buy seven larger transport aircraft after EADS dropped its bid because of integration problems with its A400M model.

Republic of Korea Naval Aviation

The Republic of Korea Naval Aviation is a relative young component of South Korea's impressive military machine. From 1973, a small unit was equipped with the first fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft. On January 5, 1973 a small number (maybe only four) O-1Cs entered service and formed the Fleet-Air squadron in May 1973. The O-1s were followed by two Bell 206Bs (designated OH-58) on March 29, 1974. Soon afterwards the force was greatly enhanced, and on January 24, 1977 the existing Fleet-Air squadron was expanded into the Naval Air Wing Flotilla to better manage the strengthened Naval Aviation. By May 1976 the first S-2 Trackers had entered service (and the first fatal accident had occurred) with 101sq, followed by the SA-319B (at least seven with 201sq), Korean Air (MDHI) 500MD (25 reported) in 1977 and the UH-1H in 1978. Naval Aviation Unit 1056 is sometimes named as an early user of the OH-58. The Trackers were S-2A, S-2D, S-2E and US-2C models and at least 28 were received between 1976 and 1981. Maybe some ex ROKAF S-2As were also used.

A total of three squadrons were formed on the Tracker, 101sq at Gimhae in 1976, 103sq at Pohang on May 7, 1984 and 105sq at Jeju on February 1, 1982. 105sq also used the 500MD. On February 1, 1986 the Naval Air Wing Flotilla became Air Wing 6, an independent unit under direct control of ROK Fleet Command. On that same date, all fixed-wing squadrons were renumbered and possibly 61 and 62 Air Groups were formed:

101sq became 611sq at Pohang equipped with the S-2E

103sq became 613sq at Pohang equipped with the S-2E

105sq became 615sq Sea Eagles at Jeju equipped with the S-2E and 500MD

It looks like the SA-319B equipped 201sq was not renumbered until September 29, 1989 when it became 621sq. SA-319Bs replaced the 500MDs with 615sq from December 30, 1991. In January 1992, 621sq moved to its present location at Mokpo. The 90's were a decade of modernization with three new types entering service. First was the Westland Lynx Mk99, and twelve were delivered from August 12, 1990 to form 627sq. An additional thirteen Lynx Mk99As were received from September 1999 and formed 629sq in 2000. Both Lynx squadrons are based at Jinhae, and a few Lynx helicopters are also based with 615sq at Jeju where they replaced the SA-319Bs. A true multi-purpose helicopter is the UH-60P, used for Navy Seals special operations, medevac, VIP and utility tasks. Ten were received by 1993 and formed 623sq at Pohang, where they operate next to the UH-1H.

From March 22, 1995 a total of eight P-3C Update III+ maritime patrol aircraft were delivered to 613sq at Pohang. Co-located 611sq lost its Trackers when five Ce F406 Coastal ASW aircraft were taken on charge from November 23, 1998. The Ce F406 is locally known as the C-400. In March 2001 the last operational Tracker was retired by 615sq at Jeju, and replaced by the P-3C. The procurement of former USN P-3Bs became certain after a letter of intent was signed in December 2003 and the required budget was reserved. Eight ex-AMARC aircraft were overhauled and upgraded by KAI and entered service as P-3CK with 613 NS and 615 NS from February 23, 2010.

On July 17, 2009, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) notified the US Congress of a possible Foreign Military Sale to the South Korean Navy of eight MH-60S Multi-Mission Helicopters for the ROKN Mine Countermeasures (AMX) program. The MH-60s will most likely replace the aging SA-319Bs of 621 Helicopter Squadron at Mokpo and UH-1Hs of 623 Helicopter Squadron at Pohang.