August 22, 2011 12:48
The South Korean military's artillery firefinder radar systems failed to detect the North Korean artillery shells when they fell in waters near the Northern Limit Line close to Yeonpyeong Island on Aug. 10.
The Seoul area is threatened by about 340 long-range artillery pieces with a range of 54-65 km, including 170 mm self-propelled howitzers and 240 mm multiple rocket launchers, which the North has deployed along the western frontline near the demilitarized zone.
This means large parts of the metropolitan area lie within the range of the North's long-range artillery, which is reportedly capable of raining up to 7,000 shells per hour on the area.
The North usually hides its artillery pieces in caves to pull them out and fire shells when necessary. It then may put them back in their original positions in the caves within some five minutes to keep them safe from counterattacks.
That means the South must locate the source of artillery fire immediately after a North Korean attack either to fire at the weapons before they are put back into the caves or destroy the mouths of the caves so they cannot be pulled out again.
The artillery firefinder radar is a device capable of tracing the trajectory of enemy artillery shells. The South cannot launch a preemptive strike on the North's long-range artillery, and the artillery firefinder radar can detect enemy shells only after they are fired. The only option is to neutralize artillery immediately after an attack.
South Korea has a total of 20 artillery firefinder radar systems, including the American-made AN/TPQ-36 and 37 firefinders and the Swedish-made Arthur. The TPQ-36 is also called "mortar-locating radar" due to its short detection range of 24 km. The TPQ-37 has a coverage range of 50 km. The military has bought six Arthur firefinders since 2009 to complement the TPQ radars.
But there are fears that that is not enough since the radar systems are in short supply and break down often.
According to data the Defense Acquisition Program Administration submitted to Future Hope Alliance lawmaker Song Young-sun of the National Assembly's Defense Committee, the six new Arthur firefinders deployed at the Third Army headquarters and its five corps broke down a staggering 78 times between November 2009 and November 2010.
According to data released by Grand National Party lawmaker Kim Ok-lee of the same committee, the TPQ-36 were repaired 98 times and the TPQ-37 60 times over the past five years. Last November, when the North shelled Yeonpyeong Island, the military failed to locate the source of the fire at first because a TPQ-37 broke down.
On Aug. 10, when the North fired artillery shells into waters off Yeonpyeong Island, an Arthur also failed to detect them because they were in the radar's blind spot, and experts say this could happen again.
A military source said, "The artillery firefinder radar can detect objects at a 60-90 degree angle. We can cover target areas around the clock only when we operate all radar systems in rotation, so it's hard to carry out watertight detection of long-range artillery fire only with about 20 radar systems."
The South has fewer than 10 TPQ-37s, and the U.S. Forces Korea has concluded it needs about 20 TPQ-37s to watch the frontline areas adequately. The TPQ-36 costs W3.7 billion apiece and the TPQ-37 W14.7 billion (US$1=W1,086).
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