The United Arab Emirates is buying a South Korean air defense system based on the Russian 9M96 interceptor missile and radars and command and control systems developed for Russia’s S-350 and S-400 missile systems.
Known as the KM-SAM Cheongong II (Iron Hawk), South Korea developed the system in partnership with Almaz-Antey (officially JSC Concern VKO), Russia’s premier air defense system developer and with Fakel (P.D.Grushin Machine-building Design Bureau).
The original Cheongung project in South Korea was planned to replace the outdated US-built MIM-23 Hawk (Homing all the Way) air defense system. Cheongong II is an upgrade that is optimized against lower-tier ballistic missile threats.
Cheongong II was first deployed in South Korea in November 2020. A complete battery consists of up to six 8-cell transport-erector-launchers, an X-band multi-function 3D phased array and a fire command vehicle.
The system can intercept an incoming missile at an altitude of 20 kilometers, or 12.4 miles. The Cheongung missiles are hit to kill instead of a fragmentation-type warhead.
The South Korean partnership with Russia’s aerospace and defense industries represents an effort by South Korea to counter missile threats from North Korea and also suggests the Koreans want to be in control of their own air defenses and not rely on the United States, which mans and operates the only THAAD system in South Korea.
The UAE has acquired Patriot PAC-3 advanced missile defenses from the United States, but US Patriots have been, at best, modestly effective against Houthi-launched Iranian ballistic missiles and ineffective against drones.
US being bypassed
The UAE, meanwhile, “suspended” a purchase of F-35 jet fighters after the US imposed conditions on the sale which the UAE found unacceptable. Washington has been promoting negotiations with the Houthis and has not supported military operations by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in contesting Houthi attempts to overthrow the Yemen government.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, which also has the Patriot PAC-3, has reported it is running out of interceptor missiles for its Patriots and has asked for more. Whether the US will deliver missiles, and when, remains an unanswered question. Saudi Arabia faced 375 cross-border attacks this past year, mainly missiles and drones, launched by the Houthis.
The UAE will not be the first to seek alternatives to the US Patriot system. South Korea, which has Patriots and is seeking to upgrade them, has moved on in its partnership with Russia in developing the Cheongung and L-SAM, South Korea’s version of the US THAAD (TerminalHigh Altitude Air Defense).
Like Cheongung, LSAM is a development with the Russians and is based on the 48N6E interceptor missiles. That missile has a range of some 400km, or 250 miles, making it the longest range missile available for Russia’s S-400 Triumf air defense system and it may be able to intercept hypersonic targets.
According to the publication Global Security, the L-SAM system “will intercept missiles at an altitude of 40km or above [or an altitude of 50-60km],” moderating worries that the PAC-2 and PAC-3 are not enough to shoot down DPRK missiles, possibly tipped with nuclear warheads.
Well ahead of South Korea, Israel has also developed its own increasingly integrated air defense system that includes Iron Dome, David’s Sling, Arrow-2 and Arrow-3. Israel is partnered with US firms (Raytheon, Lockheed, Boeing) and is supported by the US Missile Defense Agency.
The US also funds Israeli air defense systems as well as joint research and development.
Poland, which is buying the Patriot PAC-3, has asked for its Patriot system to include Raytheon’s Skyceptor missiles. Skyceptor is the Raytheon version of the joint Raytheon and Israeli Rafael interceptor rocket which was developed for Israel’s David’s Sling.
Alternatives to US products
The David’s Sling system is designed to intercept enemy planes, drones, tactical ballistic missiles, medium- to long-range rockets and cruise missiles.
US air defense systems today include Patriot (PAC-2 and PAC-3), THAAD and the Ground Based Interceptor (GBI) or Ground Based Midcourse Defense (GMD). The US Navy also has the Aegis air defense system today featuring SM-3 and SM-6 interceptors.
The US proposed to Japan a land-based version of Aegis (Aegis Ashore), but Japan decided against buying the land-based system because of objections that the missiles might fail and fall on population centers and were too expensive.
Turkey, in a blow to the US and NATO, purchased the S-400 air defense system from Russia and is considering purchasing more.
If the UAE already has PAC-3 Patriot and THAAD (nine batteries of Patriot and two batteries of THAAD), why did it buy the South Korean system? One explanation is that the Korean Cheongung Air Defense system fills a “lower tier” gap that can’t be handled by Patriot and where THAAD is not effective.
This aligns with Israel, which does not have THAAD, but needed a system to fill an important air defense gap against the threat of exoatmospheric but short-range missiles that could be launched by Iran, or by Iranian proxies.
Arrow-3 fills the role of THAAD in Israel and the Israelis are working on an even more advanced system called Arrow-4.
For the United States the UAE purchase, politics aside, represents a significant setback. The US does not presently have an integrated air defense system that covers the spectrum of modern threats.
The US Defense Department has been burying its head in the sand if it thinks it can keep proffering systems that are either ineffective against heavier ballistic missile threats, fails to address other threats such as UAVs or cruise missiles, or systems that lack an integrated and layered approach.
Clearly, if South Korea can sell a system based on Russian technology, US air defense support for NATO and for allies and friends comes into question. All of this translates to a growing loss of confidence in American air defense capabilities; made worse it seems since the US Defense Department has not responded to the air defense confidence crisis it faces.
Follow Stephen Bryen on Twitter at @stephenbryen