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Asia-Pacific , Naval

Does the South Korean Navy's New Dokdo Class Carrier Use Cutting Edge Russian Technology for Air Defence?

June 29th - 2018

South Korea’s second Dokdo Class carrier warship, commissioned in May 2018, is set to make use of the indigenous K-SAAM surface to air missile system for protection against air and missile attacks, an advanced air defence platform designed replace the older American RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) used by previous warships. In service since the early 1980s, the RIM-116 continues to serve widely in the naval fleets of the United States and a number of its allies - though it is heavily restricted both in the types of projectiles it can intercept due to its limited speed of Mach 2 and in its range of just 9km. The South Korean armed forces have since the 1990s begun to reduce its reliance on American air defence technologies o, possibly due to their poor performance during the 1991 Gulf War, and concerns regarding U.S. anti missile and aircraft system’s ability to provide protection have grown considerably in recent years due to a number of severe shortcomings when deployed to the Middle East.

Following the end of the Cold War and the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Moscow and Seoul, South Korea showed a considerable interest in acquiring Russian military technology. With neighbouring North Korean fast expanding its ballistic missile capabilities, and its air force continuing to field one of the largest fleets of combat jets in the world, the southern military showed particular interest in acquiring Russian surface to air missile systems - a technological field in which the Soviet Union had maintained a considerable lead during the Cold War arms race. In the 1990s South Korea’s armed forces indicated that they sought to acquire the S-300 surface to air missile system, which would give it a more capable long range air defence platform than any fielded by North Korea at the time. The United States however, seeking to limit Russian arms exports and maintain market share for their own producers, opposed the sale. The U.S. Congress in 1997 voiced its concerns over Seoul’s acquisition plans, purporting that the country should as a U.S. ally instead purchase the American made Patriot missile batteries. It stated: "Considering the almost half century relationship between our two countries, and the closeness with which our troops train together, it would be most unfortunate for South Korean allies to procure a non U.S. air defence system." Unable to acquire the S-300 directly due to American pressure, South Korea’s armed forces sought to obtain key Russian technologies incorporated onto the missile platform - which the cash strapped Soviet successor state was more than willing to sell. By acquiring S-300 technologies without directly purchasing the system itself, reprisals from the U.S. were thus avoided. The result was the induction of the Cheolmae II surface to air missile system under a joint program between Russian and Korean defence firms, and the transfer of key Russian air defence technologies to South Korea.

South Korea has since the 1990s continued not only to incorporate Russian technologies onto its air defence missile systems, but also to continue to acquire new Russian technologies developed more recently to modernise its capabilities. Richard Weitz, Director of the Center for Political Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute, wrote regarding the extensive use of Russian technologies developed for the S-400 by Korea’s latest air defence platforms: “The M-SAM will use S-400 missile technology provided from the Almaz Antey Joint Stock Company, including proprietary information from the S-400’s multifunction X-band radar. LG Corp’s missiles’ guidance systems are expected to also use Russian design elements.” According to Lee Choon Geun, a senior researcher at the Korean Institute of Science and Technology, South Korea's latest air defence system the M-SAM “uses more stable technology” from the Russian S-400.

With Russian technologies having been key to developing South Korea’s latest long range air defence platforms, the country’s latest nasalised surface to air missile system is highly likely to make use of many of the same technologies. While South Korea’s acquisition of Russian air defence technologies will continue to be indirect for the foreseeable future, particularly as the Untied States continues to double down on and seek to penalise those states which acquire Russian made arms, Russian technology is set to be key to Korea’s air defence for many years to come. The likely incorporation of surface to air missile systems on the South Korean Navy’s latest carrier warship, the largest vessel in its fleet, is testament to the key role this technology continues to play. Considering the growing sophistication of anti ship and 'carrier killer' weapons systems fielded by a number of states, North Korea's formidable Kumsong-3 (KN-19) long range anti ship cruise missile system being but one example, the use of advanced Russian air defence technologies is a much needed asset for the South Korean Navy. 

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