MELBOURNE, Australia — South Korea intends to further boost its military’s command and control as well as surveillance capabilities as the country’s president reiterated his desire to see it entrusted with wartime control of its forces.
Speaking at a ceremony to commemorate the nation’s 69th Armed Forces Day on Sept. 28 at the Republic of Korea Navy’s Second Fleet headquarters in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi, President Moon Jae-in said that by increasing defense capabilities and reducing its reliance on the American military, South Korea would project more power in the region and better deter an attack by North Korea.
He did reiterate, however, that he aims to strengthen South Korea’s ties with the U.S., noting that “we can fundamentally prevent North Korea’s nuclear provocations when the expanded deterrence of the [South] Korea-U.S. alliance is effectively manifested.”
South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense displayed several of the country’s most advanced military capabilities at the event, including the public debut of the Hyunmoo-2C ballistic missile, which has a range of almost 500 miles that enables it to potentially strike deep inside North Korea. In response to North Korea’s missile test on Sept. 14, South Korea conducted a quick launch of its own, test-firing a pair of Hyunmoo-2 missiles within six minutes.
The Hyunmoo family of ballistic missiles is part of South Korea’s three-pronged strategy against the North Korean missile threat: the Kill Chain preemptive strike system, the Korean Air and Missile Defense system and the Massive Punishment and Retaliation plan.
Currently, wartime operational control, or OPCON, of South Korea’s military rests in the hands of U.S. Forces Korea. Moon’s two predecessors pushed back the previous target dates of 2012 and 2015 to transfer control of forces, citing a need to further develop the country’s own defense capabilities.
South Korea is planning significant improvements to its military’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR, capabilities, with its recent defense budget earmarking $10.6 billion for procurement along with research and development. It has ordered four of Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aircraft, with deliveries due to start in 2018, and will launch the first of five planned military satellites in 2019 as part of a program to improve its own ISR capabilities.
Dr. Euan Graham, the director of the International Security Program at Australia’s Lowy Institute, told Defense News that taking over OPCON of its forces “requires significant across the board investment in communications enablers, not just satellites or other ISR systems on South Korea’s part.” He added, however, that the most recent budget is a sign that the government understands that need.
Graham also said that Moon’s latest remarks indicate that he seems more serious about taking over OPCON of South Korea’s military than his predecessors, and he suggested that this is part of an “overdue” trend of major U.S. allies adopting a more autonomous defence posture.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.