The Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) was born into conflict. Established in 1949, it was immediately thrust into the vicious air battles of the Korean War.
Flying P-51 Mustangs, the ROKAF fought alongside the United States Air Forces and other countries’ militaries, facing down Russian and North Korean jets.
Concurrently, Seoul needed to ramp up its military capabilities rapidly in order match the size of the North Korean air force.
Even today, the ROKAF continues to field American aircraft, and has outstripped its Northern rival in the amount of modern fighters it can put into the air. Overall, while its focus is on air defense and air superiority, the ROKAF is a flexible and modern air force.
The backbone of the ROKAF is its fighter force. The most numerous type in service is the Northrop F-5E Tiger II. The F-5 was a mainstay of the ROKAF for many years, beginning in the 1970s when F-5As and F-5Bs were exported to South Korea. The current stock of F-5Es and F-5Fs (dual seat variant) came later, and featured a new fuselage, a radar, and better engines compared to the F-5A/B. F-5As and Bs were retired from Korean service as the F-16 was adopted. The F-5E is capable of performing light air-to-air duty with up to 4 AIM-9 air to air missiles, it also can carry various combinations of dumb rockets and bombs. The ROKAF fields 142 F-5Es, and 32 F-5Fs.
Also notable is the F-16C/D. The ROKAF operates the F-16C/D Block 32 and F-16C/D Block 52. The F-16C Block 32s were imported into South Korea starting in 1981 as part of the Peace Bridge I foreign military sales program. Block 52s were later bought in 1989 after a deal to buy F/A-18s fell through. South Korea produces the F-16 under license, and designates them internally KF-16.
In service, they are very capable aircraft that usually mount the AIM-9 or AIM-120 (on Block 52 aircraft) for air to air combat. They also support targeting pods to deliver precision guided munitions. KF-16C and Ds are undergoing a deep modernization called the Peace Bridge Upgrade. The program will add new helmets, new radars, and integration with newer weapons such as the GBU-31 JDAM into the ROKAF’s F-16 fleet. After all domestic production and imports are taken into consideration, the ROKAF has 118 F-16Cs and 45 F-16Ds.
Further, the ROKAF also fields a version of the USAF’s F-15E Strike Eagle. The F-15K “Slam Eagle” won the ROKAF’s competition for a next-generation strike fighter in 2002. Like the strike eagle from which it was derived, the F-15K stands out from more multirole fighters by its larger fuel tanks and improved integration with air-to-ground weapons. Air-to-ground weapons that likely would be used by the F-15K in the ROKAF’s inventory include the AGM-65 Maverick, the AGM-130, and the Paveway II laser guided bomb. There are 60 F-15Ks in the ROKAF’s inventory.
The ROKAF also fields 60 F-4E Phantom II in two squadrons, although this aircraft is fairly outdated and has not received extensive modernization. It’s supplemented with a new aircraft of indigenous design, the Korean FA-50 “Fighting Eagle. The FA-50 is a light attack/trainer jet similar to the Russian Yak-130 and Czech L-139. It’s integrated with most modern air-to-ground weapons such as the JDAM and the Maverick, but it’s limited by the small weapons load of 4.5 tons and the limited air-to-air options: only the AIM-9 Sidewinder.
Going forward, South Korea has already agreed to buy 50 F-35As. The first aircraft for the ROKAF rolled off the production line in March 2018, but actual deliveries to South Korea are only expected to occur in 2019. Regardless, the F-35 will significantly increase the capabilities of the ROKAF in both air-to-air and strike missions. Korean F-35As will use Korean made electro-optical sensors, radar, and jammers.
In order to support and control its fighter fleet, the ROKAF has four Boeing 737 AEW aircraft, sold under the “Peace Eye” foreign military sales program. While not as powerful as the latest American designs, the Boeing 737 AEW craft is a popular choice among medium sized air forces.
Just by the kind of aircraft the ROKAF fields, it is pretty evident that South Korea’s primary concern is to fight and win the battle in the air.
Coming from their history, a need for a very strong fighter force is evident.
But with the adoption of the F-15K and the integration of additional air to ground weapons in the PBU upgrade, the ROKAF is slowly gaining more strike capability. This is partially because of a new doctrine, the “Kill Chain” which calls for a preemptive strike program that plans for the ROKAF to rapidly neutralize North Korean targets before they even have the opportunity to strike.
Information about the numbers of planes and weapons fielded was taken from The Military Balance 2018.
Charlie Gao studied Political and Computer Science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national security issues.
Image: South Korean air force F-15K Slam Eagle aircraft pilots prepare for an aerial refueling with a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft over Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Aug. 21, 2013, during Red Flag-Alaska 13-3. Red Flag-Alaska is a series of Pacific Air Forces commander-directed field training exercises for U.S. and partner nation forces, providing combined offensive counter-air, interdiction, close air support, and large force employment training in a simulated combat environment. (DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Jim Araos. Wikimedia Commons