The United States has agreed to “substantially increase” the sale of advanced weaponry and military technologies to South Korea as a result of recent discussions between Presidents Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in about their joint approach to countering North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
The first major exports under this new initiative are likely to be intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) tools for identifying and destroying military targets and installations in case of war with North Korea, according to a Newstapa review of U.S. government statements and defense contractor websites.
Missile defense systems will also figure large in any sales. Kim Jong-dae, a lawmaker with the Justice Party, recently asserted that “it’s very likely” that the United States could push Seoul to buy its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system that has been so controversial in Korea, as well as Patriot PAC-3 and SM-6 missile interceptors. The THAAD system and the Patriot batteries are made by Lockheed Martin, and the SM-6 by Raytheon.
ISR has been a major emphasis for South Korea. It recently earmarked $10.6 billion for procurement and R&D as “part of a program to improve its own ISR capabilities,” and in two years will launch the first of five military satellites, according to the US military newspaper of record Defense News. ISR technologies are also important for the upgraded communications systems that will be necessary if and when South Korea regains wartime operational control of its military.
One possible option for South Korea, observers say, could be the “Avenger” drone previously known as the “Predator.” This unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems has been used extensively by the US Central Intelligence Agency and the US Air Force in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria. The new version can carry 3,000 pounds of sensors and bombs and is considered one of the world’s most deadly weapons.
The Avenger would augment the fleet of four RQ-4 “Global Hawk” high-altitude surveillance drones South Korea purchased from Northrop Grumman in 2015 for delivery in 2018. The US corporation, which is the second largest US military contractor, has close ties to Samsung Corporation and Korea Aerospace Industries. General Atomics said in August it is engaged in talks to sell the Avenger to a foreign buyer that was later identified as India by Defense News.
The export of the Avenger drone to South Korea would require a change in US policy. Under the Obama administration, the Global Hawks sold to Seoul could only be used for reconnaissance, and were not armed, according to a US Congressional Research Service report prepared for US lawmakers last May. As a result, the Korean Ministry of National Defense is spending nearly $450 million to “indigenously develop” a UAV designed for armed combat that it hopes to be ready by 2021, CRS said.
Few details have been provided by the White House and the Pentagon on the future weapons and technologies to be sold to South Korea, and none of the sales are expected to happen quickly.
“Foreign military sales involve drawn-out processes that can take years,” Real Clear Defense, a military publication, noted in September. “They typically entail complex negotiations not only between nations but within the U.S. government, with the Pentagon, the State Department and Congress all playing central roles.”
The US arms sales to South Korea will be overseen by US Army Lieutenant General Charles Hooper. He is the Director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which is charged with overseeing Pentagon financial and technical assistance to US military exporters.
In a speech Tuesday in Washington, Hooper told hundreds of contractors and foreign military officers that the Pentagon was prepared to listen as much as possible to South Korea and other military partners “to make sure we understand their requirements before we move forward.”
His agency, Hooper said, is committed to making sales move as quickly as possible to “reduce the flash-to-bang time” and “get weapons to partners as quickly as we can.” He added: “we’re in an increasingly competitive environment.” He spoke to the annual military convention and exhibition sponsored by the Association of the US Army, which was attended by all major US companies as well as about 20 arms makers from South Korea.
Hooper declined comment on specific arms sales. But last month, he told another conference that the Pentagon is already “working very closely with our South Korean allies to assess their immediate requirements” and “address our mutual interests.” He has plenty of experience: he spent the previous three years as US defense attache to Egypt, where US exports have risen 46 percent since 2011 to $238 million in 2016, or 16 percent of Egypt’s total.
South Korea’s 2016 imports of $1.6 billion made it the world’s 6th largest purchaser of arms, behind Saudi Arabia, Algeria, India, Iraq and Egypt, according to the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database. Most of South Korea’s weapons come from the United States.
South Korea is “a major purchaser of U.S. weapon systems,” and is “regularly among the top customers for Foreign Military Sales (FMS),” the congressional research group recently stated. From 2008 to 2016, it said, Korean contracts under FMS reached $15.7 billion and commercial acquisitions $6.9 billion, for a total of $22.5 billion in acquisitions over that time.
According to CRS, 75 percent of South Korea’s imports were purchased from U.S. military corporations, including Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Boeing (which recently won a five-year contract to sustain South Korea’s fleet of F-15s). They make up four of the world’s top five arms companies.
In addition,“European and Israeli defense companies also compete for contracts; Korea is an attractive market because of its rising defense expenditures,” CRS noted. US competitors include the EU’s Airbus, which recently beat out Boeing for a $1.3 billion tanker contract with the South Korean Air Force.
Much of the “complex negotiations” will involve technology transfers. Key Korean weapons systems, such as the KF-X fighter jet built by Korea Aerospace Industries with assistance from Lockheed Martin, rely on the U.S. for core technologies, particularly advanced radar that serve as an aircraft’s “eyes and ears.”
As recently as last year, however, the US government and Pentagon have denied South Korean requests for the transfer of some of these technologies. This was particularly true for missiles, which South Korea has limited since it joined the Missile Technology Control Regime in 2001.
At the time, “the US military absolutely did not want to see South Korea have their own independent long-range strike capability,” military analyst John Pike wrote in his popular military blog, GlobalSecurity.org.
But in 2012, the US and South Korea compromised, allowing South Korea to increase its missile range from 300 to 800 kilometers. But recently, Washington “rebuffed” the Korean request for the “long-range precision air-to-ground missile” called JASSM, the Guardian reports. It is made by Lockheed Martin.
The US limits on missiles and technology sales are now being extended as a result of the heightening tensions with Pyongyang over its nuclear and ICBM tests. “I am allowing Japan & South Korea to buy a substantially increased amount of highly sophisticated military equipment from the United States,” Trump tweeted a few days after North Korea exploded its sixth and largest atomic bomb on September 3.
Yet even before Trump’s announcement, Moon’s government was pushing to revise its missile guidelines to double the maximum weight of its warheads to 1,000 kilograms.
That will “improve its ability to destroy hardened targets,” Bruce Klingner, a former CIA deputy division chief for Korea who now heads up the Northeast Asia program for the extreme-right Heritage Foundation, told the military publication Defense One. Doing so, he said, “augments allied deterrence and defense capabilities” and “furthers the trend of South Korea assuming a larger responsibility for its defense.”
The desire for Seoul to take a larger role in military matters is reflected in President Moon’s latest drive to accelerate the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) from the US military.
“It’s only when we regain wartime operational control of our military that North Korea will fear us more and the South Korean public will trust the military more,” Moon declared on September 28. That, in turn, will require an expansion of South Korea’s satellite communications, defense analysts point out. Taking over OPCON “requires significant across the board investment in communications enablers,” Australian security expert Dr. Euan Graham told Defense News.
That could open a lucrative, new market for US intelligence integrators such as CACI International. It is one of five contractors that dominate the US spying and surveillance business and has extensive operations at US bases in South Korea, including the huge new base at Camp Humphries near Pyeongtaek. Employment notices on the CACI website show the company is currently hiring in Korea for work at this base, and looking specifically for classified telecommunications network operators.
Korean purchases of high-tech items such as drones will also strengthen US-South Korean industrial cooperation. Under the ROK’s 2015 drone deal with Northrop Grumman, for example, South Korea purchased two ground stations and supporting equipment so Korean operators can “control and maintain the system,” the company said. Because that involves extensive training, it deepens US-Korean cooperation in intelligence operations and further tightens the military alliance.
One of the most extensive training programs is run by Lockheed Martin, which manufactures for South Korea the F-16 fighter jet, the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense systems also deployed by Japan, and the T-50 training aircraft jointly marketed around the world with KAI.
Under a program called “ROKStar,” it provides millions of dollars in R&D funding and mentoring to South Korean universities and research institutes for technologies in line with Lockheed’s “core capabilities,” according to the company website. Among these are signals processing technologies used by the US National Security Agency to monitor global communications. In 2016, ROKStar awards went to researchers at Korea University, Seoul National University, and Ulsan National Institute for Science and Technology.
Northrop Grumman, which makes many of the advanced radar systems used in US missile programs, is deeply rooted in Korea through its local CEO, Brian Kim, a former executive with Boeing Defense, Space and Security (where he oversaw sales of AH-64 Apache helicopters and small bombs). Kim, according to his official biography, spent over 20 years working in the US for KAI and its founding partners Samsung Aerospace and Hughes Aircraft Company, where he presided over aircraft programs such as the KAI T-50.
Boeing, of course, is well represented by Mark Lippert, the last US ambassador to South Korea. In April, he joined the company in Washington as its vice president for international affairs, and quickly threw himself into Korean affairs. He was an honored guest in June when President Moon spoke to the US Chamber of Commerce just before his summit with Trump, and has been spotted by Newstapa at every major Korea-related event since then at the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies in downtown Washington.
As tensions in Korea have increased this year, stock values for the companies doing business in Korea have risen sharply. Boeing’s shares this year have risen around 60 percent since Trump moved into the White House in January. Raytheon is up 25 percent, while both Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman saw their stock rise by 20 percent (that’s about double the 12.4 percent rate for the Dow Jones Industrial Average.)
But even the relatively minor cutbacks in the domestic defense budget over the past year has led US defense contractors to focus more on boosting exports. "One area where we expect the majority of our growth potential to come from in the years ahead is our international customers,” Marillyn Hewson, the CEO of Lockheed Martin, said at a “media day” last March. South Korea is central to their plans.