Advanced weapons now
The author, a former editorial writer and director of the Institute for Military and Security Affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo, is a senior researcher of the institute.
In August 1346, England and France had a historic battle over the control of the Sovereign Duchy of Brittany, then a fief of the Kingdom of France. In the War of the Breton Succession between 1341 and 1365, the English army led by King Edward III landed at Normandy and invaded Paris. In reaction, the French army led by King Philip VI confronted the English army in the famous Battle of Crécy, northern France. At the time, an English infantry of 10,000 to 15,000 was no match for a French army with 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers. But the result was a crushing defeat for the French army. A major factor was the English longbow commonly six feet long, with a three-foot arrow. The secret medieval weapon, which could fly more than 90 meters (98 yards), was able to penetrate plate armor of the French army and kill a horse. The French had to withdraw even without engaging in a full-fledged battle.
In the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592, the Japanese forces could advance fast on the ground thanks to their new firearms (Arquebus), or a “hook gun.” But they suffered one crushing defeat after another at sea. The shooting range of approximately 20 guns mounted onboard the panokseon — a traditional Korean warship with a U-shaped hull — was about 900 meters, but the two or three guns on a Japanese warship could only hit a target within the 100-meter range. Admiral Yi Sun-shin ordered sailors to start massive artillery attacks on the Japanese boats while keeping a distance. Lee achieved 23 victories in 23 sea battles with the Japanese Navy.
In the 2003 Iraq War, the U.S. forces completely dominated the Iraqi forces by precisely detecting — and attacking — their strongholds. The U.S. carried out asymmetrical air raids on Iraqi troops. The Iraqi forces were attacked again even before they assessed the damage. As the pattern continued, the Iraqi forces were paralyzed. They chose not to fight with the U.S. enemy. While American forces could conduct military operations based on accurate information, their Iraqi counterpart could not. They were even unable to detect the location of U.S. troops or make a quick decision.
A war victory mostly depends on innovated combat methods. Recently, military powers like the United States, China and Russia are colossally revamping their armed forces by rapidly upgrading the level of military science and technology, as seen in their persistent enhancement of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, drones, information technology and quantum computing, as well as new laser and stealth technologies. They believe their existing weapons and combat systems do not ensure a victory in a battle to defend their countries.
In fact, the United States is building AI-based unmanned combat systems. China is engrossed in applying AI and quantum physics to create an intelligent Army. Russia plans to launch a robot-based combat unit capable of independently carrying out operations by 2025. Japan is poised to deploy unmanned aircraft by 2035 after jointly working on them with America. In that case, a fleet of one-manned aircraft and three unmanned aircraft will be engaged in aerial operations. All countries around the Korean Peninsula — except for South Korea and North Korea, which has blind faith in nuclear weapons and missiles — are busy restructuring their militaries.
But South Korea adheres to such ideas of defense reform as scrapped by the U.S. Defense Department in 2009. Seoul sticks to the “National Reform 2.0” spearheaded by President Moon Jae-in. That can hardly embody what the Defense Ministry seeks — the Active Protection System aimed at controlling the spread of war through defense yet allowing a strategic shift to offensive operations. Besides, South Korea faces so perilous a demographic cliff that it can hardly maintain even a 400,000-strong armed forces. After the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) is fully equipped with the AI- and robot-based combat systems, staging a South Korea-U.S. joint drill also will be difficult due to South Korea’s relative weaknesses in new systems. South Korea cannot deal with the North Korean nuclear threats or provocations from neighbors.
That’s why the Defense Ministry announced a future plan to innovate our national defense by augmenting operations capabilities based on AI and combat robots. The ministry will soon draw up a master plan as well as a mid- to long-term road map to develop unmanned combat systems. But even if the military prepares the new National Defense Vision 2050 — and if the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines envision their own goals — South Korea is over ten years behind advanced nations in terms of the new operational capabilities.
Therefore, the Defense Ministry plans to establish a strategic command combining the space, cyber and missile categories, as well as an integrated air defense system to block enemy fighter jets from approaching our airspace. To do that, the military will install cutting-edge interceptors and long-distance detection systems within ten years, including a strong laser weapon that can intercept missiles. That’s not all. The ministry is also poised to develop autonomous combined combat systems, manned or unmanned, not to mention the acquisition of game-changers such as ultra-supersonic and ultra-long distance missiles, railguns, biomimetic robots, stealth tanks, unmanned fighter jets, combat robots and smart combat uniforms.
The Defense Ministry’s initiatives cannot see the light if the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) does not pay attention. Developing sophisticated weapons is not possible with the help from defense contractors alone. Experts in core technology such as AI are mostly working in the civilian sector.
The U.S. Defense Department also assigns a number of tasks to civilian companies and research institutes in the development of AI-based unmanned combat systems at the risk of losses. However, as the DAPA was basically launched to root out corruption over defense projects, it tends to follow orders from above — and is reluctant to take responsibility. As a result, the DAPA often avoids developing weapons which have a high likelihood of failure.
As its remarkably high rate of success in developing major defense technology — over 99 percent — suggests, the DAPA carried out projects that will certainly be successful. (Even in the U.S., the success rate is 80 percent). In other words, the spirit of challenge disappeared in the defense technology field long ago. The DAPA is now determined to change course.
Choi Ho-cheon, head of the Future Combat Capabilities Headquarters, said, “We have created a goal to develop prototypes of weapons and operate them on the field within five years.” (In the past, it took ten years on average to fully develop a certain weapon.) He was determined to embrace a defense contractor even if it failed to meet the deadline. Yet it remains to be seen.
The Defense Space Center opens
In June, the DAPA opened the Defense Space Technology Center in the Agency for Defense Development (ADD). The center, with three divisions, studies such fields as defense space and AI, cyberwarfare and networks, radar and electronic warfare, chemistry and biology, as well as hi-tech materials and energy. DAPA plans to put technologies under research and development by the center on the fast track and also make it faster for the military to purchase weapons developed by the civilian sector.
For instance, the DAPA quickly purchased a top-caliber solution to respond to enemy drones from a start-up from the Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology (Dgist) in June. The technology can detect an ultra-mini drone eight kilometers (5 miles) away. The advanced nations can do that seven kilometers away.
The Defense Ministry’s self-reform should be welcomed. But the question is the timing: it came up with an innovation scheme in the final year of the current administration. The ministry also can hardly avoid the criticism for inefficiently spending tens of trillions won in Defense Reform 2.0 over the past four years.
Future defense innovation could start in the next administration. The reinvention calls for cutting-edge technologies and enormous budgets to totally reorganize our Armed Forces. The ministry has come up with its future defense innovation plan in less than a year, whereas the Pentagon did it in ten years. That raises risks obviously.