South Korea has tapped domestic aviation company Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) for systems integration and ground equipment for a new surveillance aircraft based on the Dassault Falcon 2000LXS business jet, as the Asian nation continues efforts to boot its Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.
The US ally’s arms acquisition agency the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) has awarded the contract to KAI to convert four Dassault Falcon 2000LXS business jets into Baekdu ISR platforms.
KAI said in a statement released on the 1st of November that it would lead the systems integration phase of the contract along with the development of a ground system, with LIG Nex1 responsible for the development of mission equipment. South Korea’s Aju Business Daily reported that the program is worth A$1.008 billion.
The new ISR platforms will replace four older Hawker 800XP (RC-800SIG) ISR aircraft currently being operated by the Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF) acquired under the Peace Pioneer program in the late 1990s and are expected to enter service in 2026.
South Korea’s RC-800SIGs are fitted with an L3Harris combined communications- and electronic intelligence (COMINT and ELINT) suite that covers a range of frequency ranges up to and including the Ka-band (26.5 to 40GHz).
The new ISR aircraft will serve alongside the RoKAF’s existing ISR capability, which currently comprises of four RC-800RA Peace Krypton aircraft, two Dassault Falcon 2000S Baekdu aircraft, four Boeing E-7 Peace Eye Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft (similar to the RAAF’s Wedgetail) and four Northrop-Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk High-Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) unmanned aircraft.
Lockheed-Martin has recently also been awarded sustainment and ground system modernisation contracts to support the RoKAF’s RC-800RA Peace Krypton aircraft, which were acquired at the same time as the RC-800SIGs. These are used for imagery reconnaissance and are also fitted with synthetic aperture radars and moving target indicators.
The RoKAF is also seeking more AEW&C aircraft to bolster its fleet of E-7 Peace Eye jets, which it says will be used to further minimise gaps in its air defence coverage as part of a significant effort to boost South Korea’s ISR capabilities, which will be crucial for monitoring neighbouring North Korea’s ballistic missile programs and operations.
It will also reduce the US ally’s reliance on ISR support from the US military, an important consideration if South Korea was to realise its aspirations to take over operational control of its own forces in the event of a conflict.
Under current plans, South Korean forces will come under operational control of the US military during a war with the nuclear-armed north, which is technically still at war with its southern neighbour and the 28,000 US military personnel stationed south of the demilitarised zone which has separated the two Koreas since the ceasefire that ended the Korean war in 1953.
The south has been making an effort to take back operational control of its forces since the previous South Korean presidential administration, with former president Park Geun-hye agreeing on three conditions its military must meet before it is able to take over, which was originally planned for 2015 but has repeatedly been pushed back.
These include an improvement in South Korean ISR capabilities, and although it is unlikely to take back operational control of its forces before the term of current president Moon Jae-in ends in 2022 due in part to a pause in US-South Korean military exercises as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the continued buildup of the RoKAF’s ISR capability makes it a real possibility during the next president’s term.