UK’s tilt to Indo-Pacific offers ‘golden opportunity’ for London-Seoul defence ties
The United Kingdom’s latest defence review sends a clear signal of post-Brexit Britain’s re-commitment to Indo-Pacific security, a move in recognition of the growing economic and geopolitical importance held by countries in the region.
Titled “Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy,” the defence policy paper foresees deeper and wider relationships with the countries in the region with a goal to defend liberal values across the globe and resist authoritarian behaviour.
South Korea is among the regional players with which Westminster is seeking a stronger partnership, as the Asian economic power is one of the so-called D10 club of democratic partners, referring to G7 countries plus South Korea, Australia, and India.
“Defence is essential part of the UK’s integrated offer to the region and, as such, we will be strengthening our regional defence cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, in support of the Government’s efforts to build wider security partnerships,” states the Integrated Review published in March. “We will develop capability partnerships and support UK prosperity by strengthening defence exports.”
The defence relationship with South Korea is “a highly significant area of focus for the UK,” the paper describes, calling the Asian country “a liked-minded democracy that shares views on regional security priorities and the rules” that shape the international system overall.
“We will build on the enduring strategic partnership established during the Korean War by enhancing opportunities for exchanges of personnel, training, education and information sharing,” says the Integrated Review.
For South Korea, UK’s tilt to the region could be an opportune chance to develop ties with the European power further, especially on the defence industrial partnership.
“The UK’s return to Indo-Pacific security will have far-reaching implications for its partners in the region, and this is a golden opportunity indeed for South Korea to expand its strategic alliance with London in terms of industrial partnership in the defence sector,” said Choi Gi-il, assistant professor of military studies at Sangji University, Gangwon Province.
Interoperability is a key component to forging a stronger security relationship, the professor stressed, referring to the South Korea-US military alliance as a case in point that has been leading to a variety of defence industrial partnerships mutually beneficial.
“With enhanced programmes of exercises, exchanges, and capability development, interoperability (with the United Kingdom) could be strengthened to a greater extent,” Choi added. “It’s a good chance to diversify our defense trades that have heavily relied on US industry.”
Light aircraft carrier
The South Korean Navy’s plan to develop its own light aircraft carrier would serve as momentum to expand industrial and technological partnerships between London and Seoul, observers anticipate.
In February, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration approved the plan to build a 40,000-ton class light aircraft carrier by 2033, with an investment of about $20 billion.
Notably, the latest design of the light aircraft carrier, codenamed LPX-II, was unveiled earlier this year to show a twin-island arrangement that bears a striking resemblance to the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers.
“One of the world’s leading maritime powers, the United Kingdom has enough capabilities and knowhow to provide technical and doctrinal advice for the South Korean aircraft carrier plans,” said Retired Navy Captain Moon Keun-sik, director of legal and external relations division of the Korea Defence & Security Forum, a Seoul-based private defence think-tank.
“For the development of a light aircraft carrier, for instance, we would be able to get assistance from the UK industry partners with regards to the design of the flight deck and command center and their operational skills.”
Indeed, the UK Government has expressed its hope that it would become a major partner of South Korea’s ambitious carrier development scheme.
The defence paper states, “The UK will support mutual prosperity through closer industrial cooperation underpinned by military expertise, particularly through their indigenous Light Aircraft Carrier programme.”
Against this backdrop, the planned visit by the British striker group led by the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to South Korea in the coming months is gaining attention if that could be a symbolic event for bilateral cooperation on the LPX-II project.
The Royal Navy’s Carrier Striker Group has set sail on a 28-week voyage for the Indo-Pacific. The group will cover 26,000 nautical miles and make a number of port calls along the way, including South Korea and Japan.
Seoul’s Ministry of National Defence indicated the opportunity of discussions over the light carrier development when the HMS Queen Elizabeth-led British naval striker group is visiting the southeastern port city of Busan.
“There is a possibility of cooperation, including exchanging knowledge, such as Britain’s experience of operating aircraft carriers, on the occasion of the HMS Queen Elizabeth’s visit,” Boo Seung-chan, spokesman for the defence ministry, told reporters on April 27.
The United Kingdom and South Korea have successfully established industrial partnerships on naval assets, as seen in the case of Seoul’s export of fleet auxiliary tankers to the Royal Navy and British support for the South Korean Navy’s ongoing 3,000-ton attack submarine programme codenamed the KSS-III.
Based on these efforts of naval defence cooperation, Moon and Choi echoed, both sides could explore more opportunities to expand their industrial strategic partnerships to the area of land systems.
“It’s going to be a win-win situation for both governments if they would be able to widen their defence industrial ties to other sectors,” Choi said, citing the K9 Self-Propelled Howitzer, or SPH, as an optimum solution for the British Army, which is looking to acquire up-to-date SPHs to replace its aging fleet of AS90s under the Mobile Fires Platform, or MFP, program. A request for proposal is for MFP is expected to be issued in 2022.
“It is no doubt the K9 is one of the most effective SPHs in the world in terms of firepower, mobility, and protection,” he said. “I’m sure the UK military will show strong interest in acquiring this Korean-made artillery.”
Built by the Agency for Defence Development, or ADD, and Hanwha Defence in 1998, the 155mm/52-calibre K9 “Thunder” has successfully been evolving to become the world’s top-class self-propelled howitzer with by far the largest share in the global SPH market.
Around 1,700 K9 variants are in service around the globe, as the artillery platform and its core technology have been exported to several countries, including Turkey, Poland, India, Finland, Norway, and Estonia, with some of the products being produced in the customer nations concerned.
In addition, the Hanwha-built artillery was selected in 2020 as the preferred solution for the Australian Army’s Project LAND 8116 Phase 1 to introduce 30 AS9 SPHs and 15 AS10 armored ammunition resupply vehicles. Both the AS9 and AS10 are to be manufactured in Australian soil once a final contract is signed.
Designed to provide effective and deep fire support across theaters, the K9 has a maximum rate of fire of six to eight rounds per minute. Its maximum firing range is about 40 kilometers with its rocket-assisted projectile.
The K9 has been modified to the K9A1 version with improvements in fire control and power systems, and the tests and evaluations for the newer version of the K9A2 equipped with an automated turret are underway. The maximum rate of fire for the K9A2 is to increase to nine to 10 rounds per minute.
“The K9A2 upgrade program is in full swing, and the up-to-date K9A2 variant will be fitted with an automated turret, a key requirement of the British Army for the MFP program,” a Hanwha Defense spokesman said.
The British Army would be able to enhance its joint/combined capabilities further with its NATO allied forces, including Estonia, Norway, and Finland, on the basis of the interoperability of K9 SPHs operated by respective armed forces, the spokesman noted.
The potential cooperation on the K9 would even help facilitate the UK defence industry capability, as small- and medium-sized enterprises based in the European nation would join the global supply chain of the K9/K10 family vehicles, about 2400 of which are in service globally, he added.
“The UK is the first international market to which the newest K9A2 is tapped, and if successful, the UK industry would have more opportunities to be involved in the K9 upgrade programmes in other countries.”