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Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 18:48 | SYDNEY
Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 18:48 | SYDNEY

South Korea's new missiles

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COMMENTS

23 May 2012 15:00

A few weeks ago the South Korean Government unveiled a new short-range ballistic missile (300km) and longer-range cruise missile (500-1500km). More recently it announced plans to build 500-600 of them, combined.

In its public statements, South Korea has linked these new systems explicitly with the threat from the north. But given the range of the cruise missile in particular (the entire Korean Peninsula is only 1100km long), it is tempting to consider a regional context.

This would not be the first time the ROK has acquired weapons systems that have little relevance to the North Korea threat and which seemingly have more to do with its regional presence and its rivalries with China and Japan. The ROK Navy's AEGIS destroyers come to mind; these ships are designed primarily for command of the open oceans, with weapons systems focused on threats from the air and from other surface ships. Those are not North Korea's strengths; it has a coastal navy and a very weak air force.

Some other thoughts on the cruise missile: 

  • Even if armed with a small conventional warhead, long-range cruise missiles give South Korea some of the characteristics of a nuclear deterrent, without having to pay the huge political cost of going down that route. If such missiles have the range to be targeted at major pieces of infrastructure – particularly hydroelectric dams, nuclear power plants or even airports – they can have out-sized effects, even with a comparatively small conventional payload.
  • Judging from the publicly released photos of the cruise missile, there are no obvious signs of 'faceting' to reduce the missile's radar signature. This would not be a concern against North Korea's ancient air defence network, but would reduce the weapon's effectiveness against a more technologically advanced regional adversary. 
  • The increased range could be intended to improve the missile's 'loiter' capabilities rather than to increase its range.

The ballistic missile is also somewhat mysterious. Ballistic missiles are an expensive way to put a relatively small amount of ordnance on a target, and South Korea has a sizeable fleet of mint-condition F-15Es which could likely do the job more efficiently and more accurately. Perhaps these ballistic missiles are 'first day of the war' weapons, designed to knock out North Korea's command & control centres so that the manned fighters can then enter in greater safety.

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