[Column] Streamline defense procurement

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[Column] Streamline defense procurement

Lee Kwang-hyung

The author is president of KAIST and head of the fourth industrial revolution committee of the Reset Korea Campaign of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Last December, the South Korean military had to scramble fighter jets and attack choppers upon detecting the infiltration of a North Korean drone into our airspace over Seoul. The incident exposed many loopholes in defending our airspace and a critical lack of counter-measures. South Korea prizes itself as an IT powerhouse. The drones deployed in the Ukraine war came from Turkey and Iran. Ukrainian forces use Turkey’s TB-2 unmanned attack drones while Russians rely on Iran’s “kamikaze” Shahed drones.

If so, what does South Korea do in the new defense market today? Our defense industry was exuberant over 21.4 trillion ($17 billion) in arms exports last year. But the list of weapons Korea exported points in the other direction. The shipments were confined to conventional weapons, like tanks, armored vehicles and artillery used in World War II while missing drones and other cutting-edge technologies, which dramatically change the character of modern warfare.

South Korea, undoubtedly an IT powerhouse, supplies more than 100 million smartphones to the global market. The global industry could come to a standstill without memory chips from Korea. Wherever you go, Korean electronic appliances have become essentials in affluent homes and hotels. It is baffling that the country is still happy with the export of conventional weaponry.

The shortcomings in our defense pipeline owe much to the fallout over the last decade. Collusion or corruption related to arms procurements regularly occurred out from 2014. After unceasing scandals, the government focused on fixing the corruption-feeding structure through laws and other measures. As a result, extra discretion has been taken from the developmental stage of weapons to the stage of their production and deployment. The multi-layered check system has helped mitigate irregularities significantly. The downside is on innovation. Due to the over-anxiousness with any new venture, the country could not meet the demands of the times. It simply could not make unmanned aerial vehicles even Turkey and Iran could.

In the development of new weapons for Korea, the process has become more important than the objective. The entire process must be transparent — objectively. Any novel ideas and ventures were deemed risky and hard to prove objectively. Therefore, it was safe for scientists and engineers to do just as their predecessors did. In the meantime, Korea’s weapons procurement system has turned into a dinosaur.

A weapons procurement process starts with raising the need for new weapons. If the requirement is approved, a planning process for new weapons follows.
Soldiers from the Army Tiger Combat Brigade show their attack drones at the headquarters of the 25th Infantry Division, Gyeonggi, June 10, 2022. [JOINT PRESS CORPS] 

Then, a decision is made whether it should be imported from outside or developed at home. Due to complexities of technology transfer, self-development is the typical choice for new weapons procurement system. The program then undergoes a review for budgeting. Money can be earmarked one to two years later, but it could take three or four years.

R&D activity can start once the money comes in. This is usually three to four years after the request for new weapons was first filed. If new technologies come up during the developmental stage of a new weapons program, adjustments should be made. But a deviation from original design requires a new round of fussy and complicated procedures.

Collaboration with partners can be necessary to test out a prototype. Selecting the partner also must be transparent to disqualify any subjective opinions. If a new weapon is successfully developed, the authorities must determine whether to mass-produce it for deployment in the field. The process can take several years.

Once the deployment is decided, the company responsible for the mass production must be decided. The tender process must not offer advantage to the company involved in developing the prototype. The new weapon would arrive roughly 10 years after its requirement was raised first. In short, a product planned a decade ago would be hitting the market.

The tedious and frustrating process does not end here. Worse, failures in the R&D process are not tolerated. The accountability from a failure can be harsh. An exemplary case was a test on an unmanned aerial vehicle in 2017. After a prototype crashed during a test flight under the supervision of the Agency for Defense Development (ADD), it ordered the researchers to compensate it for the damage. Since the drone cost 6.7 billion won, five researchers were each liable for 1.34 billion won in costs. After much dispute, they were cleared of individual indemnity, but the event became a traumatic experience for researchers.

Serious consequences can follow for taking risks because safety comes before creativity and challenge. Not taking risks can be the safest under such circumstances. So, it has become a practice to not take any chances. Scientists and engineers increasingly want to avoid divisions that must take on risky ventures.

Another hardship for people in defense development is confidentiality mandate. They must not speak on their research work to anyone as it is a state secret. But for the individuals, it can be hard sometimes. Everyone wishes to share their work experience. They wish to boast about it when all goes well, or seek advice when things go tough.
But defense R&D staff do not have any ways to release their psychological burden. They must take comfort in their patriotic contribution. That cannot be appealing to the younger generation.

It is how the North Korean drones were able to roam around the skies over the capital without any interruptions and why South Korea cannot match Turkey or Iran in military drone technology.

I would like to suggest four ways to resuscitate our sovereign defense and related industry. First, we must change the process of acquiring new weapons in an epochal way. The system in Korea has long been outdated. Even when there are some risks, we should be quicker in applying new technologies to our military.

Second, each force — army, navy, air force and marines — must have separate R&D functions to improve their weapons systems. The need for adjustments will rise in the field, especially as the weapons were designed a decade ago. But to make improvements, a request must be filed again to go through a lengthy process. Such waste can be saved if each military force has its own R&D function.

Third, radical measures are needed to draw talents into defense technology development. Brainpower cannot be honed at the current terms of government and defense institutions. Salaries should be at least doubled to attract some of the talents who would otherwise head to IT, game or big enterprises. North Korea places top brains in weapons development. Ryomyong Street in Pyongyang is a posh neighborhood where scientists involved in developing missiles and nuclear weapons live.

Fourth, to apply the latest technologies of AI and quantum technology to our weapons systems, an integrated team of military officials, civilian experts and private companies must work together from the planning stage. There is a limit to devise innovative new weapons systems through the solo planning by military officials.

Military authorities are well aware of such problems. But because the process involves many complexities, a few changes in the law or system are not enough. A comprehensive special act to revitalize our sclerotic defense industry is more effective to solve the deep-rooted problem. Otherwise, our weapons technology will continue lag behind that of other countries.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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