S. Korea may put hypersonic missile into service by late 2020s

Posted on : 2022-01-07 16:06 KST Modified on : 2022-01-07 16:07 KST
The South’s missile flies father and in a more complicated fashion than the North’s
South Korea’s Hycore, a test model of an ultra-high-speed flight vehicle, was unveiled by the Agency for Defense Development in December. (still from an ADD promotional video)
South Korea’s Hycore, a test model of an ultra-high-speed flight vehicle, was unveiled by the Agency for Defense Development in December. (still from an ADD promotional video)

North Korea’s not the only one developing hypersonic missiles — South Korea is too. In August 2020, then-South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo said that Korea would accelerate the development of hypersonic missiles during a ceremony on the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Agency for Defense Development (ADD) in Daejeon.

Jeong’s remarks represented the first official confirmation that the South Korean government was developing hypersonic weapons. Following those remarks, the Ministry of National Defense announced that it intended to make a “requirement decision” about hypersonic warheads to provide strategic deterrence against the threat of various weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, in a military-wide meeting of senior commanders in December 2020.

In the context of weapon development, “requirement” signifies a plan to acquire something, either through R&D or through a purchase.

Ministry officials formally acknowledged the development of hypersonic weapons at that point because the ADD already had the key technology, which made the ministry confident that it could proceed with development whenever it chose. According to sources connected with the military, South Korea is ahead of North Korea in its technical ability to develop hypersonic missiles.

The missile that North Korea fired is a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), while the weapon that ADD is developing is a hypersonic cruise missile (HCM). An HCM flies farther and in a more complicated fashion than an HGV; it’s also harder to make.

An HGV curves downward until the final stage, when it sails in on a smooth horizontal trajectory like a glider. Because an HGV follows a parabola (just like a ballistic missile) in the early and middle stages after launch, enemy forces can detect its trajectory and prepare for its arrival.

But an HCM flies at a low altitude from its launch and can land a surprise precision strike against key enemy targets, such as command posts and military facilities, without being detected by the enemy’s radar. If an HCM with a speed of Mach 5 were launched from the air above Seoul, it would reach Pyongyang, 250 kilometers away, in about a minute and 15 seconds.

Between 2004 and 2007, the ADD developed a propulsion system consisting of a liquid fuel ramjet. An HCM is too fast for ordinary jet engines; it requires a ramjet capable of instantaneous combustion of the air. The ADD has been developing the key technologies for HCM for a long time.

From 2010 to 2012, the ADD began studying the application of key hypersonic technologies, and from 2011 to 2017, it carried out related research by setting up a specialized laboratory for ultra-high-speed air-breathing engines. Based on that research, it has been developing a ground-launched hypersonic flight vehicle with a speed of at least Mach 5 since 2018.

This past December, the ADD unveiled the Hycore, a test model of an ultra-high-speed flight vehicle. Weighing 2.4 tons and measuring 8.7 meters in length, the Hycore has everything a missile needs except the warhead and seeker head. The ADD plans to carry out the first test flight of the Hycore this year and to complete flight testing by 2023. That paves the way for Korea likely being able to put an HCM into service as soon as the late 2020s.

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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