Review: Modern South Korean Air Power

Just behind the top-tier air forces of the world is a small choice group of major regional powers who feature most of the capabilities of the great powers, although on a smaller scale. While Israel is perhaps the most obvious example, Harpia Publishing’s Modern South Korean Air Power – The Republic of Korea Air Force Today (ISBN: 978-1-950394-07-4) places the spotlight on another one of the big players.

Harpia’s books are a known concept for readers of my reviews. We are talking about a high-quality sturdy paperback with a liberal amount of pictures. For this volume, Harpia has brought in long-term aviation photographer Robin Polderman as the author, and the result is a really interesting volume on a topic which might certainly have global implications if things turn bad – the Korean peninsula being probably the only flashpoint with not only obvious interest to all three major powers but also a local actor with nuclear weapons and ICBMs.

In typical Harpia fashion, the book includes full order of battle as well as appropriate maps.

The book takes a surprisingly broad approach, including not only a short history on the origins of military aviation in pre-war Korea as well as the history of the ROKAF from the humble beginnings up to today, but also a complete overview of all aircraft as well as helicopters and weapons in service today (including the Patriot and KM-SAM air defence systems operated by the service) as well as other podded systems (ELINT, jammers, recce/targeting pods, target towing systems, …). In addition the book deals with training (pilot/air crew training as well as major exercises), the modernisation plans stretching from 2021 to 2035, the surprisingly large and varied domestic aviation industry of the country, as well as the strategic picture including a history of recent developments covering roughly the last five years, as well as the moves of other stakeholders in the region. This include overviews of both US assets in the region as well as a concise but surprisingly exhaustive look at the North Korean Air Force. However, one of the things I felt was not discussed in appropriate detail was the role of the other services’ aviation arms, in particular when it comes to the question of helicopters where the ROK Army Aviation is a sizeable operator (read: they’ve got hundreds of them). As an example I am left somewhat in the dark when it comes to why both the Army and the Air Force flies around with their own Chinooks, and whether they perform similar roles? The title mentioning “air power” as opposed to “Air Force” also make this omission feel a bit strange, although to be fair the air force-focus is clear from the sub-header. At the same time, it is difficult to fault a book that manages to paint such a complete picture, even if my personal choice would have been to drop the part about Taiwan  and the ROCAF and dedicate the space freed up to a short discussion on the other flying services. But perhaps we are just waiting for volume two (and three?) in a pattern similar to Harpia’s recent books on Chinese military aviation?

The more secretive side of the ROKAF also get their share of the spotlight.

With that said, it really is difficult to stress enough how thorough the book is. How many books on the topic takes time to explain the role and functions of the AN/ASW-55 datalink pod? The many twists and turns that has shaped the modern  ROKAF fighter fleet are also discussed, including the cancelled F/A-18 Hornet and F-15 Silent Eagle deals. The development of domestic aircraft have also turned out to be of surprising importance for the European discussion following Poland’s recent framework agreements with the Republic, a development which was not in the cards when the book came out last year. Perhaps most impressive is that Polderman manages to cram all this into 236 pages (followed by an appendix of full-colour unit badges, this is the longer of Harpia’s standards for those familiar with their books) without the text feeling dense. It is in fact a surprisingly easy read if you want to go cover-to-cover, as opposed to some Harpia titles which are more firmly in the reference work-section. With that said, the reference value is immense, both for defence analysts and scale modellers. As mentioned, you don’t get just the aircraft and units, but also weapons, electronic warfare capabilities, and future plans.

I have to say that I personally feel like this is one of the stronger books published by Harpia in the last few years, and as such is highly recommended to anyone interested in the topic.

The book was received free of charge for review from Harpia Publishing