During a visit to the Republic of Korea (RoK) on October 18 & 19 Defence Minister Richard Marles used the opportunity to strengthen the relationship by several measures, including bilateral and multilateral initiatives. In a meeting with his counterpart Minister of National Defense Shin Won-sik, they agreed to expand on the existing Comprehensive Security Partnership between the two countries.
The Ministers signed two MOUs designed to boost security cooperation. The first was between the armed forces of both countries to strengthen interoperability; the second involved peacetime training and cooperation. Describing the background to the relationship, Minister Marles said during an address to the Seoul Defence Dialog to an international audience:
“Arriving this morning into Seoul, it’s hard not to see this glittering city as an embodiment of Korea’s national story: a country that emerged from the devastation of war to become one of the world’s leading economies, a thriving democracy with global cultural cachet. Like all Australians, I have tremendous admiration for this story – the ‘Miracle on the Han River’ – a testament not only to the hard work of the Korean people but to that brilliant combination of economic and political liberalism.”
He described various security challenges including the continuing threat posed by North Korea; the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Hamas terrorist attack from Gaza on Israeli civilians. He said that the best way to resist aggression is through alliances and cooperation:
“Australia’s first response is to deepen our network of strategic partnerships in the Indo-Pacific. It will take a network of states acting together to shape our region’s strategic trajectory so that it continues to support our collective security and prosperity. In this context there are few more important priorities for Australia than deepening our strategic partnership with the Republic of Korea.
“As mature liberal democracies, I’m convinced the strategic defence relationship between Australia and South Korea can go from strength-to-strength and is full of opportunities to deepen it even further. I’m visiting here for the second time in a year to act on that conviction.”
The Defence Minister’s visit coincided with the ADEX defence technology show, which included a dazzling array of locally designed military systems – including the Australian Redback Infantry Fighting Vehicle, which will be built by Hanwha at their plant near Geelong.
In broad terms, the growth in defence manufacturing in the RoK over the last 30 years has been spectacular. Starting from nothing – literally – the country has taken three enormous sequential and overlapping strides for self-reliance. The first has been for platforms; the second for weapons; and the third for connectivity.
By building up capabilities of selected companies – in a competitive environment – platforms have been mastered. Combat aircraft, including the KF-21 supersonic jet, are produced by KAI, which also is responsible for helicopters. Surface ships and submarines are built by Hanwha Ocean (formerly DSME) and Hyundai Heavy Industries; tanks and armoured vehicles come from Hyundai Rotem and Hanwha; weapons, sensors and communications come from a variety of suppliers, including LIG, Hanwha and Huneed.
This list is by no means exhaustive. The defence budget is roughly the same as Australia’s, which makes this level of capability quite extraordinary.
At the heart of this progress is the government body DAPA – the Defense Acquisition Program Administration – which has enormous authority regarding the budget and purchasing. It has sub-agencies responsible for science & technology and another for trials and certification.
Because it has to work within a value for money framework, it sometimes continues to purchase equipment from overseas when there are no viable local solutions – for example there is currently a competition underway for new generation AEW&C aircraft that could come from an overseas supplier, for example Saab.
We had the opportunity to sit down with the current Minister responsible for DAPA, Dong-hwan Eom, a former Brigadier General and regular visitor to Australia. The first question was about the possibility of the Korean Army purchasing the Redback and he confirmed that was the intention – though with many details still to be worked out. It is likely that the Korean configuration will have some differences, as he explained:
“As you would be aware, the Redback currently uses an imported turret (Ed: from Israel), however, we plan to use our own homegrown domestic turret in the future.”
The Minister met with Hanwha at the show and had a discussion about how Redback might also be suitable for the international market – and already there has been a great deal of interest from countries such as Poland and Romania.
He was also very positive about the relationship with Australia and mentioned ongoing cooperation in the area of autonomous vehicles in particular. We have purchased the Huntsman AS-9 155mm self-propelled howitzer – a derivative of the Korean K-9 – and associated armoured in field resupply vehicles.
Work is underway to see how robotics and AI can improve the performance of the vehicles and simultaneously reduce crew sizes. Concepts include a leader-follower formation, where a single crewed SPH is accompanied by 5 robotic howitzers to make up a full battery, with minimal people involved. Another development is for the resupply vehicles to operate fully autonomously, geolocating and transferring ammunition to SPHs as required.
We will have a fuller account of the discussion with Minister Eom in the next edition, as well as further details from ADEX. These include Hanwha Ocean’s submarine work and a progress report on the KF-21 multirole fighter and FA/50 family of trainer / light attack jets being offered for AIR 6002.
(Photo: Minister Eom (centre) in conversation with the author.)
(Disclaimer: The Government of Korea organised accommodation in Seoul for the author. He would particularly like to thank Mr Chongsong Song for his invaluable assistance.)