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South Korea Is Not Falling Behind In Ballistic Missiles

March 28, 2022
Via South Korean media.

It’s a gross understatement to point out that East Asia is an epicenter of sorts for tactical missiles. The reality is far more ominous as there doesn’t seem to be any restraint in assembling nuclear-capable weapons. Just last week the ROK Army, Air Force, and Navy were compelled to demonstrate their own missiles. This was motivated by reports that North Korea has been launching projectiles along its coastline again and happened a day after the test launch of the Hwasong-17 ICBM. The Hyunmoo 2 (pictured above) is loaded inside a single rectangular launcher carried by an 8×8 transporter with an armored cab. During the March 25 exercise the Hyunmoo 2 and an M270 MLRS armed with an ATACMS simultaneously launched their missiles.

The Hyunmoo 2’s range was originally MTCR compliant, which sets limits on nuclear-capable missiles, however, its variants such as the Hyunmoo 2B almost doubled its range. The same missile was also repurposed for submarine launches and a separate “Hyunmoo 4” with multiple improvements is a work in progress. The success of the Hyunmoo-series may have rubbed off on North Korea’s own war planners as they pushed for more precise large diameter rockets to complement older Scud-series SRBMs that are outperformed by the Hyunmoos. It’s always helpful to emphasize that South Korea’s military-industrial sector comprises just a fraction of its overall economy while North Korea maintains its part in the arms race by harnessing vast state-owned resources.

An enduring myth about the long stalemate in the Korean Peninsula is the unpreparedness of the democratic south for conflict. This has never been the case as its industrial sector and mandatory conscription allowed it to maintain its armed forces’ growth for several decades. With the US Army stationed in the peninsula for just as long, as far back as the 1960s its Honest John battlefield rockets served as a strong deterrent against the north. By the 1970s a push for a national military-industrial program involved US defense contractors on all levels. With US approval, even Nike Hercules SAMs for protecting South Korea’s airspace were adapted as surface-to-surface missiles. It isn’t surprising locally made SRBMs together with rocket artillery are part of South Korea’s deterrent today along with its intimidating air and naval power.

After their introduction in the 2000s the ROK Army kept the stockpile of Hyunmoo 2/2A and later the Hyunmoo 2B SRBMs a secret. A peculiar characteristic of either, which has been noted by experts, is the missile’s resemblance to the Russian-made Iskander whose “M” variant travels as far as 600 kilometers. South Korea’s armed forces never acknowledged this connection although local media have noted the same. It’s therefore an unfortunate coincidence how North Korea’s own military branch responsible for “strategic” weapons deployed a variant of the Iskander and aren’t keeping it a secret. Refusing to be overmatched by the south North Korea also introduced a road mobile cruise missile in record time and proved its extreme range of 2,000 km.

Unlike North Korea, the South Korean military doesn’t have a separate “rocket force” that operates tactical and strategic missiles. Instead, the Hyunmoo 2/2B and the Hyunmoo 3, which is a road mobile cruise missile, are organized into battalions and fall under the ROK Army’s command. There’s some evidence more large diameter rocket artillery and other surface-to-surface missiles will be introduced in the coming years. Since 2015 the ROK Army fielded the newer K239 Chunmoo rocket artillery system that features a twin cell launcher designed to be armed with various calibers. In form and function it’s like a bigger sibling to the US Army’s own HIMARS. But the Chunmoo’s manufacturer Hanwha Defense tailored a family of munitions for it and the largest is a 600mm missile with optional warhead types. There’s no evidence of the missile in the ROK Army’s inventory but Hanwha does advertise it at arms shows, which means the government has approved it for export, and demand for such munitions is growing.

The potential sale of Hanwha’s 600mm surface-to-surface missile means it’s MTCR compliant, putting its range within a 300 km envelope, and is in direct competition with foreign analogs such as the ATACMS, Bora Khan, Iskander-E, LORA, and even Chinese offerings like the Norinco Fire Dragon 300/480 that were tailored for the SR5 rocket artillery system.

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