By Qi Chengrong and Feng Liying
US EC-37B Compass Call electronic warfare aircraft (File photo)
Recent media reports said that the ROK Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) voted through four bills including a basic strategic plan to develop electronic warfare aircraft. According to the bill, the country will launch the electronic warfare aircraft project in 2024, and its research and development are to be completed by 2032 as scheduled.
Since the founding of the nation, ROK military enterprises have developed from scratch and made certain achievements, but the shadow of the US is also non-negligible. It is not difficult to see from the downgrade of KF-21 fighters from G5 to G4.5 that these enterprises are often stuck in a dilemma due to the lack of independent intellectual property rights and reliance on foreign core technologies.
In the field of military industry, the development of advanced electronic warfare aircraft can be regarded as an overall test of a country's comprehensive aviation strength. From designing to technological verification, from synthetic materials to electronic systems, and from airframe platforms to instrument components, aircraft development may be held back by any weak point. For a country highly dependent on foreign technologies, bringing the new-type electronic warfare aircraft from concept to reality is a challenging journey that lies ahead.
Accelerating aircraft development by "taking it": ROK sowed the seeds of disaster for the independent development of its aviation industry
Looking back on the entire history of ROK's defense industry, its electronic warfare aircraft field is empty like a blank sheet of paper, indicating that independent development is a "building a skyscraper from none" challenge for their scientists and engineers.
Learning from electronic warfare aircraft unveiled in the past 50 years, the ROK R&D experts found that there are large fighters such as Tupolev Tu-154MD and Dassault Falcon 20, as well as smaller ones like EA-18G, F-16CJ, and Panavia Tornado ECR.
Therefore, there are two feasible options for ROK's independent development of electronic warfare aircraft: one is refitting jet airliners, similar to the US new generation of EC-37B Compass Call electronic warfare aircraft; the other is developing electronic warfare aircraft on the basis of small and medium-sized fighters.
The ROK made a jaw-dropping decision to choose both despite a weak foundation, facilitating the development of electronic warfare aircraft by the joint efforts of the Korean Agency for Defense Development and military enterprises of the country. On the one hand, to ensure the long-endurance operational capability of new-type electronic warfare aircraft, it began to select jet airliners for refit, incorporating business aircraft such as Gulfstream G650, Bombardier Global 6500, and Dassault Falcon 2000 in the candidate model list for procurement. On the other hand, it plans to develop electronic attack aircraft on the platform of KF-21 fighters, which has not been approved by its Ministry of National Defense yet.
The two development paths seem to be advancing steadily but are arduous and lengthy in practice. With its long-term reliance on the US and taking advantage of special geopolitical relations, Seoul’s aviation industry has obtained a lot of technical support from the US, but this kind of quick fix of “taking it” will not only put the country at the mercy of others for long, but also sow seeds of disaster for its independent development of the aviation industry.
To exemplify with the instance of refitting small and medium-sized fighters, in the manufacturing process of KF-21 fighters, it takes 20 years for the country to barely reach the level of G4.5 due to heavy dependency on foreign technologies. As global military powers focus on G6 aircraft, the combat effectiveness of electronic warfare aircraft refitted from G4.5 fighters is still unknown.
Development of homegrown fighter jets hampered at every turn: ROK lost self-reliance in national defense by relying on the US and Western nations.
When the ROK was founded, it had a weak defense industry foundation and had to rely on technical support from other countries to establish a rudimentary system for firearm maintenance and upkeep. The turning point came in the 1970s. Driven by an export-oriented economic strategy, the ROK accelerated the implementation of an independent national defense policy with the help of its gradually improving economy and industrial infrastructure. Subsequently, it seized the critical period of US-Japan trade friction and rapidly built industrial facilities to boost economic development. In the field of electronics, the ROK leveraged the transfer of American industries to become a world leader in electronics industries such as smart phones, storage chips, and display screens.
However, the good times did not last long. The Asian financial crisis taught Seoul a harsh lesson. Since most of its large companies were expanding production through debt, when Western countries came to rip ROK off, its state-owned banks were on the brink of bankruptcy and major local enterprises fell into foreign hands. This resulted in a loss of autonomy, making both the electronic and aviation industries fall into stagnation. Four noteworthy reasons led to this.
The first is severe imbalance. The ROK electronics companies have focused too much on technologies such as storage and display panels, while semiconductor development has lagged. According to relevant data, its semiconductor inventory has approached KRW50 trillion due to continuous poor sales. In the aviation industry, whether its the original version of the KF-5E fighter jet or the F-16 fighter jet, ROK only received assembly licenses. This means that the aviation industry of the ROK is only capable of assembling and lacks research and development capabilities, let alone the capacity for independent development of weapon systems.
The second is the lack of raw materials. The ROK has few mineral resources and relies on imports of major industrial raw materials, making it impossible to achieve self-sufficiency. This poses a significant constraint on the development of the aviation and electronic industries.
The third is the lack of vitality. The ROK aviation and electronic industries have become excessively concentrated on well-known large enterprises, and issues under the conglomerate development model have become increasingly prominent after the economic crisis. Other small and medium-sized enterprises lack vitality and innovation abilities. As a result, they would quickly lose competitiveness when faced with external competition.
The fourth is the shortage of technology. Take the development of the KF-21 fighter jet as an example. ROK has to import high-performance aviation engines since the country is incapable to develop on its own. Seoul has revealed that it lacks dozens of key technologies required for the development of the KF-21 fighter jet. Although it successfully developed technologies such as active phased-array radar, electro-optical targeting pod, infrared search and track system, and infrared/radar jamming system with foreign technical support, the most critical stealth issue has never been resolved. The aviation industry of the ROK designed a non-stealth fighter jet with a stealthy appearance requiring external weapon pod through technical cooperation with Saab of Sweden. This obviously did not meet the standards of a fifth-generation fighter jet.
In addition, although the ROK can manufacture electronic products such as phones and TVs, the operating environment for electronic warfare aircraft requires higher standards in terms of size, weight, and operational accuracy. This presents another significant challenge given its current strength in the electronic industry.
The seemingly impressive model development in the ROK actually relies on the mature technology and shelf products of its American and Western allies. When developing highly sophisticated equipment such as electronic warfare aircraft, the project is bound to face difficulties if external support is missing, or core technologies are constrained. This is a challenge faced by Seoul.
Backstabbing allies for own interests: the US has its own selfish calculations
In fact, possessing electronic warfare aircraft has long been a dream of the ROK. As early as 2019, a senior official of the country made it clear during his visit to the US that Seoul expected to purchase certain airborne avionics systems for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). The main reason why it pinned its hope on the US lies in its KTX-2 Indigenous Trainer Program, which was launched with the aid of Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company (LMT), an American company. The prototype successfully made its maiden flight in 2002 and was named T-50 trainer (Golden Eagle), and has achieved good results in international military trade.
However, the aim to purchase the airborne avionics system was ruthlessly rejected by the US. As the saying goes, "A country does not have permanent friends, only permanent interests." The development of electronic warfare aircraft involves many core technologies, and the US will not hand them on a silver platter.
In terms of the functionality of electronic warfare aircraft, it is not difficult to understand the rejection by the US – the advanced electronic warfare aircraft can provide theater commanders with out-of-defended-zone interference capability to cope with complex communication environments and enemy radar threats, as well as the ability to suppress enemy air defense networks and detect enemy aerial targets, which can add weight to ROK's pursuit of military independence. This just goes against the original intention of the US.
Developing the electronic warfare aircraft is sure to enhance Seoul's military strength and to some extent weaken the US military control over it, which the US military is unwilling to accept. In addition, the independent development or manufacture of electronic warfare aircraft by the ROK will inevitably impact US' export of electronic warfare aircraft such as the EC-37B Compass Call from to its allies including Japan and Australia.
Upholding the principle of self-interest first, US has backstabbed its allies from time to time. In 1978, Swedish defense company Saab signed an agreement with the Indian armed forces to sell Saab-37 Viggen (Thunderbolt) to India. In order to consolidate its military sales to India, the US chose to intervene and impose an embargo on the engines of the Saab-37 Viggen, which ultimately led to the collapse of the transaction.
The ROK has similar experience as well. In 2001, Seoul planned to develop the KF-21 fighter, attempting to join the "Fifth-Generation Fighters Club" with the help of the US. However, its development encountered countless handicaps during the past two decades or so, and ROK had to put together a 4.5G fighter jet instead.
Undoubtedly, the US is the mastermind behind this outcome. In order to prevent Seoul from developing advanced fighter jets comparable to its F-35, the US rigorously reviewed the list of 25 core technologies proposed by the ROK side, and even demanded the ROK stop the KF-21 project. Although the US government has ultimately approved the transfer of 21 jet technologies used in Lockheed Martin's F-35 stealth fighter after great efforts made by the ROK government, the US denied the transfer of any core technologies of great concern, no matter how hard Seoul tried to work on it.
As things stand, Seoul has resolutely decided to develop electronic warfare aircraft, despite its ambition being in a conceptual stage. There are still many uncertainties to deal with to fly the aircraft out of blueprint, not to mention forming combat capability.
Despite KF-21 downgrading and multiple obstacles in developing electronic warfare aircraft, it is still difficult for the ROK to completely get rid of the US in terms of weapons and equipment development. It is safe to say that there is still a long way to go for the ROK to achieve independence in national defense.