Korea Needs In-flight Refueling Tankers

  • By Yu Yong-weon from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk

    February 18, 2010 13:12

    Yu Yong-weon

    An aircraft resembling the Boeing 767 landed on Japan's Air Self-Defense Force base at Komaki, in Aichi Prefecture early in January. It was KC-767J, an aerial refueling tanker remade from a Boeing 767-200ER. This is the fourth refueling tanker Japan has imported.

    On Oct. 1 last year, the Chinese debuted the HY-6 air refueling tankers at a mammoth parade in commemoration of the People's Army's 60th anniversary. It was reconstructed from the H-6 bombers China produced from TU-16 Soviet aircraft. China in 2005 reportedly ordered 28 IL-78 air refueling tankers from Russia.

    Even countries that are economically much weaker than Korea like Peru, Malaysia, Algeria and Venezuela have such tankers, as do Israel, the Netherlands and Singapore, whose territories are much smaller. In all, more than 30 countries have these aircraft.

    The reason is that in-flight refueling drastically increases fighters' flying range. As fighters can take off with less fuel, they can increase the payload. Air force striking power can be strengthened, reaching targets further and faster. These aerial refueling tankers allow U.S. Air Force bombers and fighters to just wait for instructions in the air over Pakistan and launch air strikes in Afghanistan when notified of target positions.

    Korea's Air Force too should be able to mount such operations in an emergency. Air refueling tankers are useful to dispatch troops or equipment to far-off destinations for UN peacekeeping operations.

    The Air Force initiated a plan to introduce refueling tankers in 1992 that has yet to see the light of day. The Roh Moo-hyun administration decided to import them in 2013, but last year that was put off by another year because of a budget shortage.

    Now even the prospects of getting them in 2014 look dim. Some officials apparently feel that the U.S. side of UN Command is supposed to support Korea with aerial refueling tankers in an emergency, so that is enough.

    No buying expensive equipment can save costs, but the Korea-U.S. alliance does not mean a free ride. Complaints are mounting in the U.S. administration and among U.S. military officials.

    Due to the lack of its own in-flight refueling planes, Korea is unable to conduct the relevant exercises, so fighters will not know what to do in an emergency even if hundreds of U.S. Air Force air refueling tankers arrive. If a military conflict flares up between Seoul and Tokyo over the Dokdo islets, there would be a glaring gap in fighting power because one side has the tankers and the other does not.

    The government has already shelved the introduction of some strategic weapons like Global Hawk reconnaissance drones. A similar situation faces Korea over aerial refueling tankers, another strategic weapon. It is true that Korea suffers an excessive defense cost burden, and from an economic standpoint alone this could be seen as a waste. But it is also true that the country must secure its own defense capabilities.

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