The Weekly Wire: For Your Situational Awareness 7/31/20

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Solid Rockets for South Korean Space Launch Opens New Options

Aaron Lin, Research Associate

On July 28, the South Korean government announced that it had reached a deal with the US to lift all restrictions on the use of solid rocket propellants for space vehicles. South Korean companies, research institutes, and nationals, will now be able to develop and produce solid rocket fuels. This will give South Korea a cost-effective way to significantly increase the amount of payload it can send into orbit. This in turn lays the groundwork for South Korea to develop more powerful launch vehicles independently, and launch larger and more capable satellites, particularly surveillance satellites that can enhance persistent ISR over North Korea.

These restrictions were first placed, along with restrictions on ballistic missile payload and range, in 1979. At the time, there were nonproliferation concerns, as well as fears that South Korean ballistic missiles could trigger an arms race or hamper any chances of negotiations with North Korea. There is some South Korean resentment over the restrictions, which is seen as having held back space launch vehicle development. Such restrictions on South Korean missile and rocket development, and US unwillingness to export related technology, led South Korea to pursue the technology from Russia.

As a result, South Korea’s first launch vehicle, Naro, actually has a first stage built by Russia’s Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center. The stage is derived from the Angara Universal Rocket Module and uses the liquid fueled RD-191 engine. Naro’s second stage was a small solid rocket motor built by Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI). Naro launched three times between 2009-2013, with two failures.

A second and more capable launch vehicle, Nuri, is currently under development. Whereas Naro could only launch 100kg to low earth orbit (LEO), Nuri is designed to send 1,500kg to LEO. This increase in payload is important to imaging satellites, as larger satellites mean larger apertures and higher quality images. It is here where solid rocket motors become so important. Solid rocket motors are typically used as powerful strap-on boosters attached to weaker (but more controllable) liquid motors. This provides a very cost-effective way of quickly increasing the payload on a given launch vehicle. Nuri is currently only liquid fueled but could lift much more payload with the addition of solid rockets. A point of comparison could be the Japanese H-IIA rocket, which has been used to launch the IGS constellation of surveillance satellites. The H-IIA can launch 10,000kg to LEO, several times Nuri’s payload, with solid rocket boosters providing most of the thrust at initial launch.

South Korea’s need for reconnaissance satellites is without question, considering North Korea’s missile and nuclear development. South Korea is already working on the $930 million 425 Project which will launch five reconnaissance satellites by 2023. The 425 Project constellation is a key pillar of South Korea’s Kill Chain strategy, which outlined pre-emptive strikes on North Korean missile sites within 25 minutes of detection and confirmation of an imminent attack on South Korea. To support Kill Chain, the 425 Project constellation will have a satellite pass over North Korea every two hours and send back ISR data.

The lifting of orbital solid rocket restrictions also opens possibilities beyond launching larger satellites, namely, long range ballistic missiles. Most modern ballistic missiles use solid rocket fuels due to their stability over long storage periods and ability to launch without the need for lengthy fueling. A comparison with Japan may again be apt. The Japanese M-V and Epsilon rockets are solid fueled launch vehicles that many have suspected can easily be turned into a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile. This latent nuclear capability is something that South Korea essentially has. It already has a well-developed nuclear industry, develops short range ballistic missiles, and faces a clear nuclear threat. A larger long-range ballistic missile capability would give South Korea a potent deterrent and insurance policy should it no longer want to rely on the US for deterrence in the far future.

Japan

Boeing and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries have officially signed an agreement to support upgrades for Japan’s aging F-15J/DJ Eagles under a Direct Commercial Sale announced last year. The upgrades will apply to 98 of the 213 fighters. The 98 aircraft being upgraded are younger airframes that received an earlier J-MSIP upgrade between 2004-2018. This upgrade program will create a “Japan Super Interceptor” variant which will include several key upgrades currently being integrated on the US fleet including Raytheon’s AN/APG-82 (V) 1 AESA radar (currently being retrofitted onto the US Air Force F-15E); Honeywell’s Advanced Display Core Processor II (ADCP-II) mission computer; and BAE’s AN/ALQ-239 Digital Electronic Warfare (DEWS) system. The upgrade program is a part of an overall $4.5 billion arms sale package to Japan that will modernize the Eagle interceptor fleet that has been heavily taxed by responding to increasing Chinese air threats and incursions.

Spain

Following the acquisition in June 2020 of 155 E-Scan Common Radar System Mk. 1 radars modernized by Hensoldt and Indra for €1.5 billion ($1.7 billion) by Spain and Germany, reports emerged that Spain is considering purchasing another batch of Eurofighter Tranche 3 aircraft. The project is called “Halcon” (Falcon in English) and could be worth up to €2 billion ($2.3 billion). The deal would entail the delivery of 20 new fighters aimed at replacing the F/A-18C squadron based in Gando (Canary Islands) that are expected to be phased out in 2025. In case of successful negotiations between Airbus and the Spanish Ministry of Defense, Typhoon deliveries could occur between 2025 and 2030. This order would be welcome by the Spanish industry in terms of ensuring jobs and aircraft production lines, especially since the Spanish economy has been severely hit by the COVID-19 crisis.

Australia

South Korea’s Hanwha Defense announced plans to transfer two Redback Infantry Fighting Vehicles to the Australian Army for initial testing and evaluation. The delivery follows a $50 million risk-mitigation activity contract signed between Hanwha and Canberra in October 2019. Both Hanwha and Germany’s Rheinmetall Defence are the leading contenders to secure Australia’s LAND 400 Phase 3 project, which seeks to introduce approximately 400 new tracked armored vehicles into service. The Australian Department of Defence plans to assess the Redbacks between November 2020-August 2021 and declare a potential offer in 2022. The LAND 400 phase 3 project mandates an Australian prime contractor be selected, even if it is a subsidiary of a foreign firm. If chosen, Hanwha Defence Australia has also agreed to manufacture 30 self-propelled howitzers for the Australian Army, with production likely taking place at the company’s Geelong, Victoria, facility.

Hanwha officials hope that securing the LAND 400 Phase 3 project in Australia could expedite its access into supplemental global markets. Some analysts speculate that a successful bid could position the South Korean conglomerate’s chances to win a widely publicized US project to replace Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles, for which bidding is slated to begin in early 2021.

Hungary

On July 24, Hungary became the latest member of the Leopard 2 user community, receiving the first four of 12 Leopard 2A Main Battle Tanks from Germany. The surplus Leopard 2A4 tanks are being leased by Hungary as an interim solution prior to the delivery of 44 Leopard 2A7+ tanks from Krauss Maffei Wegmann starting in 2023. Hungary will receive the remaining Leopard 2A4 platforms at a rate of two tanks a month from September through December 2020. The vehicles will initially be used to train tank crews prior to the replacement of the army’s T-72 tanks with the Leopard 2A7+. Once delivery of the Leopard 2A7+ takes place, Hungary will have the most advanced tank fleets in Eastern Europe with Poland currently operating Leopard 2A4s and several other countries in the region looking to replace its T-72s.

Netherlands

On July 27, the US Department of State announced that it had approved a possible foreign military sale of 16 AIM-120C-8 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) to the Netherlands. The proposed sale is valued at $39 million, but no timeline was given for deliveries. The new missiles are expected to be used to deter potential aggression from adversaries in the region and to enhance the ability of the Netherlands to both defend itself and work with the US. The Netherlands has purchased AMRAAM systems before, most recently through another foreign military sale which was approved in 2017. As a result, it seems very likely that this sale will go through with few issues or adjustments.

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