Modern South Korean Air Power – The Republic of Korea Air Force Today

Published on
June 25, 2023
Review Author(s)
Book Author(s)
Robin Polderman
Other Publication Information
256 pages with 2 black & white and 179 color photographs, 8 tables and graphs plus 2 maps, published October 27, 2021
Company: Harpia Publishing - Website: Visit Site
Provided by: Casemate Publishers - Website: Visit Site
Front Cover

This volume continues Harpia Publishing’s look at the air arms of some of the less well-known nations of the world, examining the Republic of Korea’s Air Force (ROKAF).

With a highly unstable and unpredictable neighbor to the north, the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) has to be constantly on guard and ready to fight. To ensure its ability to do this, it is closely allied with the United States and operates not only some of the most modern aircraft built in the United States, but also several modern indigenous designs.

The book focuses on the ROKAF, its history, its current capabilities, its challenges, and its future. It also looks at the politics and alliances that play out in this region. The book is divided into eight chapters with two appendices:

  • Chapter 1 – History of the Republic of Korea Air Force
  • Chapter 2 – Aircraft markings, serial number system, and unit designations
  • Chapter 3 – ROKAF aircraft in service
  • Chapter 4 – ROKAF armament, weapons and stores
  • Chapter 5 - ROKAF training syllabus
  • Chapter 6 – Modernization of the ROKAF 2021-2035
  • Chapter 7 – Korea’s indigenous aircraft industry
  • Chapter 8 – A troubled peninsula in a volatile region
  • Appendix I – Patches of ROKAF units
  • Appendix II – Patches of USAF in Korea and Japan

As Korea was occupied by Japan up until the end of World War II, early Korean aviators learned to fly outside of Korea, some at flying schools set up in the United States in the 1920’s and others in flying schools in China. The ROKAF officially came into existence in 1949. When the Korean War broke out the following year, the ROKAF only had a small number of aircraft consisting of L-4 Grasshoppers and L-5 Sentinel observation aircraft and some AT-6 Texan trainers. With the commencement of the North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, the AT-6 aircraft were used as fighter bomber while South Korea pilots were hastily trained on the F-51D Mustang, which the ROKAF flew throughout the rest of the Korea War and beyond.

After the Korea War ended, the ROKAF continued to grow and expand, enhancing its capabilities and its roles. Over the years, the F-51D Mustang was followed by the F-86F, F-5A/B Freedom Fighter, F-4 Phantom II, KF-16, F-15K, and recently the F-35A as the alliance between the United States and South Korea grew and flourished. In addition, the ROKAF operated a number of transport and training aircraft such as the C-46 Commando, the C-54 Skymaster, the C-130 Hercules, the T-37C Tweet, the T-38 Talon, the T-59 Hawk and the Ilyushin Il-103 trainer. As an interesting note, as the end of Chapter 1, the author includes a chart of pilots who defected from North Korea and China along with the aircraft they flew to South Korea.

Chapter 2 is of interest to modelers as it discusses the markings for ROKAF aircraft. Like the USAF, the flamboyant markings of the 1950’s and 60’s gave way to very subdued markings in the 70’s and 80’s, which in some cases resulted in no squadron or wing markings on aircraft, making it difficult to determine what unit aircraft were assigned to. This trend seems to have been relaxed as aircraft are again appearing with squadron or wing markings. The author includes a table explaining the numbering systems currently in use based on the aircraft type. There is also a nice organizational chart of the ROKAF and a current Order of Battle for the ROKAF listing the various squadrons, the aircraft they fly and the airbases where they are stationed.

Chapter 3 looks at the various aircraft operated by the ROKAF as of 2021 (the year the book was published). The aircraft are listed alphabetically by the manufacturer and there are some surprises such as the Anotov An-2 biplane, the Kamov Ka-32 (Helix) helicopter, and the RQ-4 Global Hawk. There is a brief description of each aircraft, when it was acquired and how they are used by the ROKAF along with at least one color photograph of the aircraft. The descriptions of the KAI T-50, T-50B, KT-50 and FA-50 provide an interesting insight into the development of this indigenous trainer design and its transformation into a light combat aircraft that has seem some export success in Southeast Asia.

I found Chapter 4 to be very interesting as it provides a very good look at the various weapons systems currently employed by the ROKAF, including not only air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons, but also surface-to-air systems such as the MIM-104 Patriot and the Cheon Gung I (developed from the Russian S-400) SAM systems. Again, each system is described briefly and accompanied by one or more color photographs. The aircraft mounted systems are usually depicted loaded on an aircraft or on their appropriate weapons rail, providing good details for aircraft modelers.

Chapter 5 takes the reader through the process of becoming a ROKAF aviator, whether it be a fixed wing or rotary wing pilot and discusses how the ROKAF uses participation in various exercises such as Red Flag, USAF Air Mobility Command exercises, and joint operations with the USAF and other countries to improve and hone its pilots’ skills and knowledge.

Chapter 6 takes a look at the ROKAF’s plans to continue modernizing its aircraft and capabilities by continuing with ongoing upgrades of its existing aircraft along with adding new capabilities such as adding F-35B VSTOL aircraft and an associated amphibious assault ship.

Chapter 7 examines the creation and growth of South Korea’s indigenous aviation industry and has grown to the point that Korea is now the 9th largest arms exporter in the world. The industry started simply with the design and construction of light aircraft trainers, moving on to license production of aircraft such as the MD500 helicopter, the KF-5E and KF-5F light attack aircraft and the KF-16 Falcon. It has also been contracted to do overhauls on US military aircraft in the far east such as the A-10C, F-15 and C-130 for the USAF and the US Navy and Marine Corps CH-53E. Over the years, the Korean aerospace industry has also designed and developed several indigenous designs such as the KT-1 primary flight trainer, the T-50 Golden Eagle jet trainer, and the FA-50 Fighting Eagle light combat aircraft. Its most recent program is the KF-21 fifth generation stealth fighter, which the book discusses at length. There are several photographs of the prototype KF-21 under construction and at its unveiling, but at the time the book was published it had not yet been flown.

The last chapter of the book takes a look at the politics of this volatile region and the important role South Korea and the ROKAF play in the region due to the competing goals and influence of Russia, mainland China, and the United States. It examines the history of the close relationship between the ROKAF and the USAF in both Korea and Japan that has existed since the end of the Korean War, through the Vietnam War to date. It also looks at how an armed conflict between North and South Korea could have worldwide ramifications.

The two appendices are collections of the unit patches of ROKAF units and USAF units stationed in Korea or Japan.

The book is printed on high quality paper and the photographs are all extremely well produced – something we have come to expect from Harpia.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and while it is not an end point for someone looking to build a model of a ROKAF aircraft, it is certainly an outstanding starting point and a must read for anyone with an interest in this corner of the world and the operations of one of the more secretive air forces.

Highly recommended!! Thank you to Harpia Publications and Casemate Publishing for the review sample.


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