Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, on his first visit to South Korea since taking office, will assess his ally’s preparations for taking control from the U.S. of planning against any North Korean attack.
South Korea is investing in missile defense, intelligence, surveillance and munitions capabilities before the December 2015 scheduled handover from the American command. Among the items on the potential acquisition list are Boeing Co. (BA) attack helicopters, Northrop Grumman Corp. drones and Textron Systems Corp. advanced anti-armor cluster bombs. The U.S. also has advocated the purchase of advanced missile-intercept systems.
“The big ones are what we have identified already and are working with -- obviously missile defense is a huge part of this,” Hagel told reporters on Sept. 28 en route to the region, when asked what improvements should be in place for the transfer that was postponed from an April 2012 target. Hagel said the timetable and any potential additional delays will be discussed.
Hagel’s visit comes amid a competition among U.S. and European combat-jet makers for what would be South Korea’s biggest weapons deal on record. The investments by Asia’s fourth-largest economy are part of an escalation in capabilities across the region, with Japan and China stepping up military spending and North Korea developing its nuclear-weapon potency.
South Korea faces the North over one of the world’s most heavily armed borders, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in a truce.
Timetable in Question
South Korea may not be able to stick to the timetable for the handover. Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin said at a parliamentary hearing on Sept. 3 that he doesn’t view December 2015 as the “right” deadline for the transfer of the wartime operational command, signaling his government would push the U.S. to delay the timetable. He didn’t say to what point he thinks the transfer should be delayed.
While the nation views itself prepared for a full-scale invasion by North Korea, it “still needs to improve in preparing for hit-and-run attacks,” said Yang Uk, a senior researcher at Seoul’s Korea Defense and Security Forum. Such hits include the North’s March 2010 torpedo attack on the ship Cheonan that killed 46 sailors and November 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong island, Yang said. North Korea denies attacking the Cheonan.
Hagel will meet with his South Korean counterpart and other officials this week as the U.S. and the Republic of Korea commemorate the 60th anniversary of the joint mutual defense act binding the two nations. The U.S. has committed under a Strategic Alliance 2015 plan to provide “bridging capabilities” pending full acquisition by South Korea of needed combat equipment and communication gear, according to American officials.
South Korean President Park Geun Hye signaled in March that her military would not just respond to another North Korean act of aggression by blunting an attack. “Provocations by the North will be met by stronger counter-responses,” she said.
South Korea has expressed interest in additional purchases of Boeing satellite-guided bombs including 2,000-pound bunker busters and Raytheon Co. (RTN) air-to-air missiles.
Incoming U.S. Forces Korea Commander Army General Curtis Scaparrotti in written testimony this year to the Senate Armed Services Committee said that the Korean peninsula needed an “upper tier” interceptor such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system -- known as Thaad and made by Lockheed -- and “more powerful sensors” such as the AN/TPY-2 Radar made by Raytheon, “to defeat medium and intermediate range missiles.”
“The Republic of Korea is studying alternatives to improve their missile defenses” and “an early step will likely be the upgrade of their Patriot system to the Pac-3 configuration,” Lockheed Martin Air and Missile Defense Vice President Michael Trotsky, said in an e-mailed statement. “After that, they plan on studying alternatives which would address defense against longer range ballistic missiles.”
South Korea will start taking delivery in 2016 of the first of 36 Boeing Co. AH-64 Apache Longbow helicopters it purchased in August that are capable of spotting targets while hovering behind ridge lines and hills. U.S. Army forces in South Korea use the Longbow Apache now.
The helicopters will improve South Korea’s capability to “secure its borders and littoral waters as well as conduct counter-terrorism and counter-piracy operations” and provide ground support to its troops, according to the Pentagon.
South Korea also is expected early next year to formally commit to buying its first Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC) Global Hawk reconnaissance drones, according to a person familiar with the matter. South Korea’s purchase of as many as four drones, along with contracts for parts, training and logistical support may be worth as much as $1.2 billion, the Pentagon estimates.
South Korea also has recently signed a letter of acceptance to buy the first fielded versions of Textron Systems Corp.’s smart-anti-armor Sensor Fuzed Weapon, according to people familiar with the purchases.
The aircraft-dropped weapons will enhance South Korea’s capability to “defeat a wide range of enemy defenses including fortifications, armored vehicles, and maritime threats,” according to a Pentagon press release.
‘Risk of Confrontation’
The region is “probably the only place in the world where we have always a risk of confrontation, when two sides are looking clearly and directly at each other,” Hagel said after a visit today to Observation Post Ouellette at the tip of the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas.
The U.S.-South Korean position is about 10 meters from the nearest North Korean post.
“There’s no margin for error up here,” said Hagel, sporting a green wind-breaker with the 2nd Infantry Division insignia, during a press briefing at South Korea’s Freedom House in the Panmunjom area of the DMZ.
Hagel said there is no consideration within the U.S. government to reduce for budget reasons the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea.
The Pentagon “will manage through any reductions it has to take,” Hagel said. The Pentagon will continue to manage future budget reductions and “at the same time assure our partners -- and specifically here in the Asia-Pacific -- that our commitment still stands.”
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