Homegrown missile project boosts South Korea’s defenses

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Felix Kim

The Republic of Korea’s (ROK’s) military has produced a new medium-range, surface-to-air guided missile to complement its U.S.-made systems and bolster the country’s defenses against missiles and aircraft.

A manufacturing consortium led by the state-owned Agency for Defense Development (ADD) made the final shipments of the Cheongung Block-1 missile, also known as KM-SAM, to the ROK Air Force, the agency announced April 28, 2020. The system will complement the U.S.-made Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems.

“They have produced an air and missile defense capability that’s undoubtedly going to cost them a lot less,” Dr. Bruce Bennett, a Korea expert at the Rand Corp., told FORUM. The Cheongung, which is Korean for iron hawk, lacks some of the Patriot’s capabilities, but its lower cost enables Seoul to “spread it around to more places within the budget they’ve got available,” Bennett added.

Expanding the dispersion of its air and missile defense capabilities is key to the ROK’s airspace defense, he explained.

The Cheongung Block-1, pictured, performed well in a 2017 test, hitting targets at an altitude of 40 kilometers with 100% accuracy, reported ROK’s Ministry of National Defense (MND).

Each 4.6 meter-long Cheongung missile can reach a top speed of Mach 4.5 and costs an estimated U.S. $1.2 million, according to Jane’s Defense Weekly magazine. The missiles are housed in a truck-mounted battery of eight fire units, which are equipped with a command-and-control center and a multifunction radar.

The Cheongung will be part of a “broad-area and multilayered defense,” along with Patriots, THAAD and long-range surface-to-air missile (L-SAM) batteries, stated an MND white paper published in 2019.

South Korea announced the start of production of the Cheongung Block-2 variant in June 2017 to help combat increasing missile threats from North Korea. The Block-2 is designed to strike incoming ballistic missiles at an altitude of about 20 kilometers. “The Block-1 was primarily designed for anti-aircraft use with some anti-missile capability,” Bennett said, “but Block-2 is supposed to enhance anti-missile capability.”

South Korean firms are involved in developing the Cheongung missiles: LIG Nex1 makes the missiles and Hanwha Systems produces the multifunctional radar.

By producing the missiles at home, South Korean defense manufacturers can “expand their base of knowledge and capability within their own industry,” Bennett said. The South Korean defense industry can also export the new missile capability by marketing its relatively low cost, he added.

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.

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