The Defense Ministry on June 26 announced a revised defense reform program that keeps intact Army equipment plans like the development of next-generation mobile guns and a multiple rocket launch system but puts off air-to-air refueling and unmanned reconnaissance aircraft for the Air Force and 3000-ton-class next-generation submarines for the Navy. The ministry is now publicizing the program among the armed forces to counter criticism that it privileges conventional weapons at the expense of strategic weapons.
Unlike 33 other countries, we have no airborne refueling aircraft. Our F-16 fighters can operate for only 10 minutes over the Dokdo islets. F-15 fighters can stay in the air for one hour at the most, and that is reduced in proportion to the weight of the weapons it carries since that limits its capacity to carry fuel. With air refueling aircraft, our fighters would be able to cover the entire Korean Peninsula and beyond. And 3000-ton-class submarines would enable us to operate in the seas around the peninsula and beyond.
If part of the Army budget were diverted to the Air Force and Navy, some pundits suggest, our armed forces, with a significantly smaller budget, will be able to not only stand against North Korea but also restrain Japan and China. Half of the W50 trillion (US$1=W1,251), earmarked for the Army would be enough to buy 100 of the latest F-22 fighters from the U.S. provided Washington lifts its export ban. They would make us so superior to North Korea as to render a war pointless, besides allowing us counter Japan in the event of a confrontation over the Dokdo islets.
Japan is trying to persuade Washington to lifting the F-22 export ban and wants to import hundreds of F-22s. We are not even considering such a step. Outdated F-4 and F-5 fighters account for a half of the 500 aircraft our Air Force has. Japan has 350 of the latest fighters and China over 2,000.
A new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute says the combined armaments of participants in the six-party talks -- the U.S., Japan, China, Russia, South and North Korea -- account for 65 percent of the world's armaments. Japan, China and Russia are competing to develop strategic Air Force and Navy weapons and high-tech space weapons. South Korea, with armaments of $24.2 billion, ranked 11th in the world. But in import of conventional weapons, Seoul ranks fourth after China, India and the U.A.E. That is how focused we still are on conventional warfare.
The revised defense reform program aims at countering possible nuclear missile attacks and special forces infiltration, according to the Defense Ministry. But the Air Force and Navy must be unhappy about the lack of support. Promotion opportunities for Air Force and Navy field-grade officers have been limited in comparison with their Army counterparts. Air Force pilots, whose training cost billions of won per head, have been discharged from active service in droves.
A balance between Army, Navy and Air Force is essential to achieving the maximum possible defense posture. But if the current trend continues, the gap between the high-tech fighting power of our Air Force and Navy and that of powers surrounding the peninsula will widen. A general recently told me, "I have a hunch that our national tragedy in the early 19th century at the hands of world powers might be repeated a few years down the line." We must make sure we can defend ourselves. Our survival depends on it.
By Chosun Ilbo columnist Kim Hong-jin