SEOUL — South Korea has launched a task force to further develop space capabilities for its military, following U.S. approval earlier this year to lift a restriction on the country’s missile production program.
The vice chief of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration, which made the announcement Aug. 19, will lead the team made up of key personnel from the Ministry of National Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Agency for Defense Development and other government organizations.
“The task force will draw up a master plan, in cooperation with related organizations and industries, to develop regulations, technologies, industries, facilities and infrastructure concerned,” DAPA said in a statement.
A week earlier, the agency endorsed a plan to invest nearly $13 billion over the next decade to help local industries develop technologies for military satellites. To that end, the Agency for Defense Development decided to transfer core satellite technologies to local defense contractors in preparation for the mass production of military satellites.
“Space programs can be developed further through active and organic cooperation between government agencies to address the various demands from defense, science and technology, and industry,” Seo Hyung-jin, vice commissioner of DAPA, told reporters. “In that regard, the space task force will play an active role in boosting the space industry under a midterm and long-term road map.”
The effort to bolster its space defense capability comes as the country saw limits removed on its rocket development in May. U.S. President Joe Biden and his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, agreed to end a 42-year-old bilateral missile guideline that restricted Seoul’s ballistic missile range to 800 kilometers.
South Korea is now in the position to develop more powerful rocket engines and play catchup in the commercial space sector.
Commercial space projects in South Korea have seen tangible progress, with the country launching its homegrown, three-stage Nuri rocket, a $1.8 billion project designed to put a 1.5-ton satellite into orbit about 600-800 kilometers above the Earth this year.
The launch of the Nuri rocket, also known as KSLV-2, would be a major advancement over the two-stage Naro space vehicle built with domestic and Russian technology. The Naro was hit with delays and two failed launches before a successful flight in 2013 carried a 100-kilogram (221-pound) research satellite to space.
Under a space development road map drawn up by the National Space Committee, South Korea would launch 110 dual-use satellites with the aim of nurturing the domestic satellite market and meeting demand, Science and ICT Minister Lim Hye-sook told reporters June 9.
Among the 110 small satellites are reconnaissance versions for military purposes; communications satellites for testing 6G broadband internet; and observation satellites for monitoring space weather.
“The space industry is a cutting-edge industry that’s based on intelligence but also a crucial one for national strategy in terms of securing national security and public safety,” Lim said.
Hanwha, which was recently ranked as the 28th largest defense company in the world by Defense News, is the most active domestic player in the expanding space market. Its three defense and aerospace business arms — Hanwha Aerospace, Hanwha Corp. and Hanwha Systems — have each developed space businesses, and the company’s so-called Space Hub task force was formed under the wing of Hanwha Aerospace in March.
“The Space Hub will orchestrate research, development and investments across a wide spectrum of business areas, including space launch vehicles, satellite-based communications, Earth observation (EO), and renewable energy,” the conglomerate said in a statement. “These efforts will play a pivotal role in helping Hanwha take the industry to new heights as a global leader in space.”
In a key step toward extending its space business, Hanwha Aerospace acquired a 30 percent stake in Satrec Initiative, a local company renowned for manufacturing high-end, small- and medium-satellite systems for Earth observation. Notably, Satrec is developing a 700-kilogram Earth-mapping satellite named SpaceEye-T. It’s designed to observe the Earth and provide imagery with resolution as high as 30 centimeters per pixel, with a goal to launch the satellite by early 2024.
Hanwha Aerospace is also involved in developing liquid engines for the Korea Space Launch Vehicle, or KSLV, and other components like turbo pumps, valves and thrust vector control systems.
Through a technology transfer from the state-funded Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, the firm plans to develop laser inter-satellite links. The company plans to apply the technology to a constellation of 2,000 satellites it is building for low-Earth orbit deployment by 2030.
Well known as a missile and ammunition maker, Hanwha Corp. is keen to develop a solid-fuel propulsion system, having only been able to produce liquid-fuel systems. In July 2020, the South Korean government received U.S. consent to use the technology on space launch vehicles. That fuel offers greater mobility for missiles and rockets, but Washington had previously imposed restrictions on Seoul’s use of solid propellant out of concern it could provoke a regional arms race.
“With the removal of restrictions on rocket range and solid fuel, we’re not limited to developing a solid-fuel propulsion system anymore,” a Hanwha official told Defense News on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of discussing missile technology. “However, there has yet to be any requirement for solid-fuel rockets for the military. We believe the space defense program is just a start and would take time to be materialized.”
Hanwha Systems is involved in a state project to build high-resolution surveillance satellites, which would have civilian and military applications capable of monitoring North Korea and neighboring countries in near-real time. The company is focused on producing small, low-orbit satellites that weigh less than 100 kilograms.
That the satellites are lightweight allows for more to be loaded into one projectile and helps create a cluster of satellites that can be connected to provide an integrated communication system that can exchange observational information, according to the firm.
In its latest move to enhance space development capacity, Hanwha Systems spent $300 million to acquire an 8.81 percent stake in OneWeb, a low-Earth orbit broadband venture located in London, England, and the U.S. state of Virginia.
Meanwhile, Korea Aerospace Industries (ranked 57th by Defense News) pledged to invest $880 million over the next five years to expand its space business, including satellite production. The company hopes to launch a ground station and satellite imagery analysis service in a couple of years.
KAI established a partnership with the Korea Advanced Institute and Science and Technology to build a space research center, where engineers will carry out projects on satellite software, spacecraft and other mobility vehicles.
Korean Air, the country’s flag carrier, is working on a military project designed to develop an orbital launch vehicle using a Boeing 747-400 airplane.
“The development of air-launched projectiles, unaffected by weather and geographical requirements, is essential to attract the rapidly increasing demand for small satellite launches worldwide,” the company said in a statement.
Brian Kim was a South Korea correspondent for Defense News.