South Korea expedites efforts to establish Iron Dome-style air defense system

The Yomiuri Shimbun

SEOUL — The administration of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol is expediting efforts to develop an advanced air defense system to counter North Korean rocket launches.

The move is intended to improve South Korea’s defense of metropolitan areas, such as Seoul and Incheon, and military facilities in the event of an emergency on the Korean Peninsula.

In mid-October, North Korea fired more than 900 warning rounds into the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea to put pressure on the South Korean military. Many of them are believed to have been rocket artillery.

North Korea has been developing nuclear and missile capabilities to counter the United States at the same time as it has been building up its arsenal of rocket launchers to target Seoul, which is less than 50 kilometers from the military demarcation line, and South Korean and U.S. military bases in South Korea.

According to South Korea’s Defense White Paper, North Korea possesses about 5,500 rocket launchers. The damage from a rocket explosion is said to extend over a radius of several dozen meters, so if rockets are fired simultaneously, the overall damage would be enormous.

According to a report by the Rand Corporation research organization, if rocket artillery with a range of 200 kilometers was deployed near the military demarcation line, about 60% of South Korea’s total population of approximately 51 million people would be at risk. Rand highlighted the possibility that the vulnerability of densely populated areas to artillery fire could increase the risk of military provocations and conflict escalation.

Rocket launchers and self-propelled artillery, which fire at relatively low altitudes, require a different kind of defense system compared to systems designed to intercept ballistic missiles that fly at high altitudes.

The South Korean military has accelerated efforts to develop a system that will detect and track rockets with radar, calculate interception points and shoot them down. This system is modeled after Israel’s “Iron Dome,” which has a radar network that covers a city like a dome.

The Israeli military deployed the system in 2011 to intercept rockets from the Gaza Strip, which is effectively controlled by the Islamist group Hamas. The system can detect rockets up to 70 kilometers away and is said to have a 90% success rate.

So far, the South Korean military has countered North Korea’s provocations by deploying a number of self-propelled artillery guns and other weapons near the military demarcation line to demonstrate its deterrence. In 2018, however, it announced plans to develop an Iron Dome-style system amid the growing military threat from North Korea.

In April this year, the South Korean government said it expected the development of the new defense system to be completed by 2029, but that target was moved forward under the administration of Yoon, who took office in May, pledging to deploy the initial system in 2026.

The Yonhap News Agency has reported that South Korea is developing technology that can quickly and accurately detect several hundred rounds of rocket artillery fire.

However, according to CNN, Israel’s Iron Dome system does not target every rocket it detects, it determines which ones pose the greatest threat and targets those. Israel intercepted fewer than half the rockets and mortars fired by Hamas during a week of fighting in May last year.

With North Korea highly likely to conduct a saturation attack in the event of an emergency, the development of an advanced defense system that can minimize damage is expected to be a difficult challenge for South Korea.