Saturday, May 29, 2010

South Korea's Defense Reform Initiative 2020 Under Intense Review

The five-year-old defense reform initiative aimed at building smaller but high-tech armed forces is under intense review following the sinking of the frigate in a "surprise attack" by North KoreaThe Defense Reform 2020 plan was initiated in 2005 by the liberal Roh Moo-hyun administration in pursuit of a "self-reliant" military that could deal with regional threats beyond defense against a North Korean invasion.

The plan included reducing the number of standing troops and instead equipping the armed forces with advanced weapons systems by 2020 in stages. The Roh administration believed the level of North Korean threat would decrease gradually with the help of its engagement policy. Against that backdrop, the previous administration put more emphasis on developing a blue-water Navy and advanced Air Force, rather than strategies to deter North Korea's conventional forces.

But the situation has changed drastically, as the Cheonan tragedy reminded South Koreans that they are facing one of the most belligerent regimes in the world, defense experts say."Last year's revision of the original Defense Reform 2020 called for boosting a readiness against North Korea's asymmetrical threats and its weapons of mass destruction. But the new version still ignored its conventional capabilities," Cha Doo-hyeon, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA), told. "A case in point is a submarine attack as seen in the Cheonan sinking."


"So now we need a critical and comprehensive review of the defense reform plan to look at what are the real threats we're facing now and then how can we readjust reform plans enough to thwart such threats," said the researcher.Some analysts are worried that the reform plans would be too much focused on the North Korean threat to cope with emerging, regional threats in the long-term. "I'm worried that defense authorities will be in a hurry to come up with stop-gap measures, not envisioning long-term military development," a former Navy admiral said, asking not to be named.

"The best scenario is drawing up plans to deal with both North Korean and regional threats in the future. I hope the Defense Reform plan is readjusted and refocused in a more balanced manner."Last year, the Ministry of National Defense revised the Defense Reform 2020, amid growing calls to prepare for North Korean asymmetrical threats and its nuclear and missile programs. The first revision called for securing independent capabilities to remove such North Korean weapons by deploying sophisticated surveillance, reconnaissance and precision-strike assets.

Key procurement items included high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles, a ground-based early warning radar, PAC-3 interceptors and SM-3 ship-to-air missiles. The Army is supposed to triple the number of its K-9 self-propelled howitzers and multiple launch rocket systems to counter attacks by the North's long-range artillery near the border under the plan. The military readjusted its target troop cut number to 517,000. The original plan called for reducing the troop level from 690,000 to 500,000 by 2020.

Changes in procurement plans

Following the Cheonan incident, military authorities are seeking to readjust their operational and arms acquisition priorities, as the naval disaster revealed the lack of necessary equipment. For example, the Navy came under heavy fire for failing to swiftly respond to the incident. The service dispatched two minesweepers from the Southern Fleet command in Jinhae to the western waters to search for the wreckage, but the vessels arrived there nearly two days after the incident.

A fishing boat equipped with a fish finding sonar found the sunken ship faster than the minesweepers. Critics said minesweeper helicopters could have sped up the search-and-rescue operation.Compared with minesweepers, helicopters can defend larger areas faster; they can also lay mines in an enemy's littorals to hamper its ships or lock them into a harbor. The aircraft can also carry special forces into enemy territory.

On Tuesday, the Cabinet endorsed 35.2 billion won ($29 million) in supplementary funds to procure and maintain weapons systems and defense equipment.The supplementary budget is to be used to upgrade warship sonar, deploy sound surveillance systems for islands near the sea border and develop an indigenous three-dimensional radar system among others.

The military also plans to buy minesweeper and anti-submarine helicopters. Potential helicopters include the Sikorsky MH-60S Knighthawk and AgustaWestland EH101.Under the MH-X project, the Navy had requested to buy eight multi-mission helicopters with airborne mine countermeasures to find North Korean mines, but the program was put on the back burner mainly because of financial constraints.According to a Cheong Wa Dae source, President Lee has directed an increase in expenditure for weapons procurement to cope with North Korea's irregular warfare.

Lee apparently called for spending about 3 trillion won within his term, the source said. Irregular or asymmetrical warfare uses more special forces to conduct operations than regular forces, as well as the unconventional use of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons systems.

Budget support

Many defense experts shared the view that to better overhaul, readjust or sustain the reform plans, budgetary support is essential. "The 2009 version of Defense Reform 2020 had a focus on improving ground forces while delaying some arms improvement plans for the Navy and Air Force due to budget constraints," Lee Sang-ho, a researcher at the Sejong Institute said. "For the original version or the 2009 revision, a securing relevant budget is the most important part, so that government authorities should first recognize a certain level of increase in defense expenditure is essential."

Budget shortfalls have haunted the defense reform plan. The National Assembly passed a 29.5-trillion-won in funding for defense last year, which represents a 3.6 percent increase from the previous year but a decrease from the original plan proposed by the Ministry of National Defense, which had called for a 7.9-percent increase.

Bruce Bennett, a chief researcher at the U.S.-based private defense think tank, RAND Corporation, said a budget problem would affect ongoing works to overhaul the defense reform plan and planned transition of wartime operational control of South Korean troops from the U.S. to Korean commanders in 2012. The original reform plan had been estimated to cost a whopping 621 trillion won based on the assumption that the country's domestic product and government expenditures would grow in parallel at roughly 7.1 percent a year from 2006 to 2020.

In other words, the Roh administration anticipated the defense budget would grow by 9.9 percent a year from 2006 through 2010, then about 8.8 percent per year from 2011 through 2015, and then on average 1 percent per year from 2016 through 2020.But that estimation has been proven wrong.

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