Modern South Korean Air Power: The Republic of Korea Air Force Today

  • Published

Modern South Korean Air Power: The Republic of Korea Air Force Today by Robin Polderman. Harpia Publishing, 2021, 256 pp.

Modern South Korean Air Power: The Republic of Korea Air Force Today by Robin Polderman provides a detailed and timely look at the aircraft and armament used by the South Korean Air Force in a region that is home to some of the most influential powers in the world. Since the early 1950s, the heavily industrialized nation of South Korea (Republic of Korea, or ROK) has seen steady growth and is now the world’s seventh-largest exporter and 11th-largest economy. As the Cold War on the Korean Peninsula gathered momentum, the development of the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) became one of the nation’s top priorities. While initially dependent on the United States for its aircraft, South Korea’s aviation industry has matured rapidly, and ROKAF’s use of indigenously manufactured equipment is on the rise. Since 1949, the ROKAF has served as a core power of the republic’s national defense, and its importance has grown even more as twenty-first century technology has helped level military playing fields around the region.

The nucleus of the ROKAF—officially established as an independent air force on October 1, 1949, by Presidential Decree No. 254—was formed by an air unit of the Department of Internal Security, which received 10 Piper L-4 Grasshoppers on September 4, 1948, delivered straight from the United States and assembled by South Korean technicians, a foretaste of things to come for many years. When the Korean War began five years after the republic’s independence when North Korean armed forces crossed the 38th Parallel, the ROKAF could field no more than 22 aircraft, including the aforementioned L‑4s, and two additional L-5 Sentinel light observation aircraft and 10 AT-6 Texan trainers imported from Canada. To help bolster the ROKAF, South Korea was provided F-51D Mustangs (formerly known as P-51Ds) as US and UN air and ground forces began their drive against North Korean (and eventually Chinese Communist) forces back north across the 38th Parallel.

During the 1950s and ‘60s the ROKAF was equipped with more modern jet aircraft like the F-86 Saber, F-4 Phantom, and F-5 Tiger fighters. Additionally, forward air control and short-range transport aircraft, a vital component to any in-depth defense of the Korean Peninsula, were fielded to the ROKAF during this period. The Vietnam War, which saw the Republic of Korean Army committed to ground operations in defense of South Vietnam, also saw the ROKAF support Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) forces with a transfer of 41 F-5s to the South Vietnamese Air Force. Since the 1980s, the ROKAF, organized and structured along US Air Force lines, has participated in both internal defense—playing a standby role in the 1980 Gwangju student riots—and external operations, supporting coalition forces in the Persian Gulf War and Global War on Terrorism in the Middle East. The ROKAF, manned by 65,000 personnel, operates a force of 720 combat aircraft using both foreign and indigenous built airframes and defensive missile systems, primarily as a strategic counter to its North Korean Air Force counterparts. Modern South Korean Air Power highlights—through 177 high-quality maps and photos, along with in-depth analysis—cover the full spectrum of ROKAF combat aviation power.

The author provides eight chapters and two appendices detailing ROKAF origins, the ROKAF today, South Korea’s national air power strategy over the Korean Peninsula and defense against its near abroad interests like Communist China and Russia, ROKAF aircraft, and the future of ROKAF programs. Students of the ROKAF “Hot and Cold War” will note the author’s description of ROKAF’s transition from exclusively American-made aircraft sold, like the F-35, under terms of a mutual ROK-US defense treaty to the procurement of Russian aircraft like the Kamov Ka-32 helicopter and the development of indigenous built aircraft like the Daewoo Heavy Industries KT-1 Woongbi (“Great Leap” in Korean) trainer—a transition made to address both the age of US-built aircraft and to reduce operating costs. The author’s approach highlights that while US designs still dominate the ROKAF’s fleet, like a number of US long-term Allies, South Korea is taking steps to diversify its force to produce and project a world-class airpower.

Of particular interest to readers is the book’s detailed description of Korea Aerospace Industries and Indonesian Aerospace’s joint development program of the supersonic fighter aircraft, the KF-21 Boramae (“Fighting Hawk” in Korean). The South Korean-led development program endeavors to produce an advanced multirole fighter for both nations’ air forces. An aircraft stealthier than any fourth-generation fighter that does not carry weapons internally like its many fifth-generation contemporaries, the KF-21 is expected to be armed with a range of air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles, and possibly even air-launched cruise missiles. The twin-engine fighters will come in single- and two-seat versions. The first test flight was conducted on July 19, 2022, after publication of this book, with manufacturing scheduled to begin in 2026. At least 40 aircraft are planned to be delivered by 2028, with South Korea expecting to deploy a total of 120 aircraft by 2032. The Boramae will also be available for export, and Poland has already expressed an interest in joining the program. The book highlights, with the development of the KF-21, South Korea’s ambition of becoming one of the top seven nations in the aviation industry by the 2030s.

At a time of great geopolitical instability between great powers as seen by Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, Modern South Korean Air Power’s analysis of ROKAF current and future air weapons systems and platforms is both relevant and timely, given how the Ukrainian military has leveraged modern western technology against a numerically superior, but technologically lagging, Russian armed forces. Finally, in Chapter 8, the author provides an excellent synopsis of North Korea’s threats, of ROKAF’s dealings with violations of South Korea’s airspace by nuclear-capable states China and Russia, and of standing disputes with neighboring Japan.

For military air planners, the information Polderman provides on South Korean airpower will prove useful in the post-Operation Enduring Freedom planning and doctrine development environment. Yet what is missing from an otherwise professionally written book is a chapter on tactical air traffic services and aviation maintenance organizations, as well as fuel/ammunition support equipment vital to the employment of modern combat rotary winged platforms. Correcting this omission of ROKAF support organizations would provide a clearer picture of how South Korean air commanders might employ their assets in the heart of East Asia. Otherwise, Polderman’s book provides a solid picture of how ROKAF operates within an extremely dynamic and complex security environment in which South Korea has long since realized that it can secure a lasting peace on the peninsula only by preparing for war.

Like all Harpia Publishing books, the print quality of Modern South Korean Air Power is excellent, and the book is worth the read. The chapter on ROKAF aircraft is as in-depth as any aviation enthusiast would like, and the book’s chapters provide detailed descriptions of how ROKAF airpower serves as an integral part of South Korea’s role in providing stability to the Asia-Pacific region. Like Harpia’s other series of books on airpower in Asia—including Modern Chinese Warplanes: Chinese Air Force – Aircraft and Units; Modern Taiwanese Air Power: The Republic of China Air Force Today; and Red Dragon ”Flankers”: China’s Prolific ”Flanker” Family—Polderman’s work offers an insightful overview of combat airpower in an economically important, but volatile region of the globe.

Colonel Jayson A. Altieri, USA, Retired

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."