[Viewpoint] Act now to build attack copter unitSpeculation has arisen that the United States Forces Korea will withdraw a battalion of AH-64 Apache attack helicopters as Seoul resumes full wartime operational control of its armed forces in 2012. There are also reports that the Korean military is pushing for the creation of an attack helicopter unit by early or mid-2010.
It is clear that the United States does not want to use its highly effective battalion of attack helicopters only on the Korean Peninsula. It’s also clear that Korea needs to bolster its defense capabilities. Without the two sides’ official statements on this matter, the speculation seems convincing.
The issue of the creation of Korea’s own attack helicopter unit, however, needs to be discussed beyond the concept of filling the hole in its deterrent capability that could be left by the withdrawal of the American Apache battalion.
The realignment of the U.S.-Korea relationship took place during the discussions about the future of the alliance between the two countries in 2003 and 2004 and the Security Policy Initiative meetings since 2005. The core of these discussions has been the improvement of the strategic cooperative partnership through the institution of inclusive ties.
During the course of the realignment, Seoul and Washington agreed that the Korean military’s responsibilities and duties for defending the Korean Peninsula would be gradually expanded. The number of USFK Apache helicopters was reduced once already during the course of the realignment, and the United States deployed F-16s and F-15s to replace them. Even if the Apache battalion does withdraw from the peninsula in the future, that is only part of the planned realignment of the U.S.-Korea alliance. It is an exaggeration to say that the U.S. security pledge for Korea has weakened.
Korea’s plan to form its own attack helicopter unit should be approached with the attitude that the country is upgrading its capabilities for the future, rather than filling a hole. Whether the Apache battalion stays on the peninsula or not, the Korean military needs to develop attack helicopters on its own. Attack helicopters are effective for deterring armored forces, and they would also do well against North Korean special forces.
The deployment of Korea-made attack helicopters would also be a meaningful step in the Korean military’s transformation into an advanced, elite force. Attack helicopter units are valuable parts of many military renovation projects around the world and would serve various future demands. Counterterrorism and international peacekeeping will become more and more important for Korea’s future security requirements, and such activities require mobility and the ability to connect ground and aerial operations effectively.
Based on their advanced military power, other countries are likely to push forward with a brand of “gunboat diplomacy” for the 21st century. Taking into account that situation, Korea needs to set up at least one or two properly equipped units with advanced capabilities.
To form an attack helicopter unit, not only the choppers but also an appropriate organizational system and experience operating them are necessary. The task, therefore, cannot be delayed forever. Even though aerial vehicles supporting ground combat will become unmanned in the future, this country first needs to accumulate enough data on manned aerial vehicles before it will be able to operate unmanned aircraft effectively.
The plan to create a Korean attack helicopter unit must be laid out within the lager scheme and timetable of improving the nation’s military capabilities. After deciding the year of the unit’s launch, the nation must concentrate all its efforts to realize the plan. Establishing the fundamental framework of the project should be accomplished first, before thinking about whether to procure U.S.-built Apache helicopters or to build Korea’s own choppers to form a unit.
*The writer is the chief of the North Korean Military Research Division at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.
by Cha Du-hyeogn