A robust economy is necessary for a country to become a major military force in the modern world. Due to the high cost of modern weapons and military infrastructure, a strong military is often a byproduct of a prosperous economy. For example, an F22 fighter jet costs 320 million U.S. dollars. So, without the necessary funds, building a force of F22 fighter jets or any other advanced weaponry is challenging. Therefore, having a strong economy is crucial for becoming a military power.
When it comes to the economic situation, South Korea ranks 11th in the world with a GDP of 158 million U.S. dollars. While this is significant, it is not comparable to the economic sizes of countries like China and the United States, which are much larger. Even though South Korea’s economy is slightly stronger than Russia’s, Russia has inherited some of the wealth from the Soviet Union. This former superpower gives it an advantage over South Korea in terms of economic strength.
In the global military power ranking of 2023, South Korea has secured rank 6. While South Korea’s military budget is higher than that of countries like Japan and the United Kingdom, its overall war potential is not comparable to major powers like China, the United States, and Russia. South Korea also falls behind second-tier powers like Japan, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.
South Korea’s military strength is not on the same level as first-tier powers such as China, the United States, and Russia, nor is it on par with second-tier powers like Japan, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. It belongs to the third tier in terms of military power globally.
Let’s take a look at the specific situation of South Korea’s military power; let’s talk about the army first.
South Korea currently has an active-duty army consisting of 550,000 personnel, ranking it sixth in terms of size worldwide. It also possesses a significant reserve force, capable of mobilizing 2.97 million troops, which is the second largest in the world. In 2020, South Korea allocated a defense budget of 42.6 billion U.S. dollars, accounting for over 2.7% of its GDP and ranking it tenth globally.
Although South Korea’s army size is not comparable to North Korea’s million-strong army, the 550,000 troops are modernized and far superior to the North Korean army in terms of capabilities. South Korea’s army boasts impressive armor density, with over 2,300 tanks of various types and more than 3,500 armored vehicles.
The majority of South Korea’s tank fleet consists of domestically produced K1 and K2 tanks, with the K2 being hailed as “Invincible in Asia” by the Koreans. While not as powerful as some counterparts, the K2 has garnered international orders for main battle tanks from countries like Turkey and Poland.
South Korea also possesses a small number of Russian T-80U tanks acquired through the “Brown Bear Project” and gradually decommissioning M-48 Patton tanks.
Let’s discuss South Korea’s K9 self-propelled artillery. In the Yeonpyeong Island artillery battle in 2010, North Korea initially gained an advantage by suppressing South Korea and destroying a K9 artillery unit. However, four South Korean K9 artillery units retaliated and claimed to have inflicted heavy casualties on North Korea.
Some observers mocked the K9’s accuracy when U.S. military photos showed most of South Korea’s shells falling on farmland behind the North Korean positions. In reality, the K9’s accuracy was not at fault, but rather South Korea’s command and combat skills played a crucial role.
Consequently, the K9 artillery system was exported to European countries such as Estonia, Norway, and Finland.
The Korean Army’s aviation unit possesses over 60 Cobra attack helicopters and has recently acquired 108 Apache helicopter gunships in two batches.
South Korea opted for the latest AH-64E V6 “Guardian Apache” model, featuring a more powerful engine and improved information capabilities, enhancing its overall combat effectiveness. Furthermore, South Korea is currently developing the next-generation AH-X armed helicopter.
The Korean army also possesses a significant number of general-purpose and transport helicopters, totaling nearly 400, which greatly enhances its air mobility capabilities.
South Korea has also made notable advancements in ballistic missiles. In July of last year, South Korea announced the successful testing of the Hyunmoo-4 ballistic missile, with a range of 800 kilometers and a 2-ton warhead. South Korea is expected to continue to increase the missile’s range in future developments.
After talking about the army, let’s take a look at South Korea’s navy and air force.
The development of South Korea’s navy and air force has been uneven. Although weaker than initially perceived, the air force is still capable enough to handle potential threats from North Korea. The total strength of the air force is approximately 65,000 personnel, with a fleet of over 700 aircraft of various types.
As a rising industrial power, South Korea is one of the few countries capable of independently conducting research and development of fighter jets. Their domestically designed T-50 Golden Eagle trainer aircraft is used domestically and exported to countries such as Indonesia and Thailand.
In addition to maintaining a certain number of advanced fighters, South Korea still possesses a large fleet of older F-5E and F-4 fighters, totaling over 200 aircraft. These planes are considered outdated compared to contemporary fighters used by major countries.
Regarding supporting and auxiliary aircraft, the Korean Air Force is relatively behind. They have only four early warning aircraft and four refueling aircraft. The transport aircraft fleet is also limited, with no long-range strategic transport aircraft like the C-170 and only a dozen short-range C-130 transport planes. However, this is in line with South Korea’s overall strategy, as its primary focus is on homeland defense.
On the naval front, South Korea is well-equipped with a comprehensive range of domestically produced ships, demonstrating the country’s highly developed shipbuilding industry.
Their navy consists of 70,000 personnel and over 170 large and small ships. The main active service vessels include three King Sejong, the Great-class Aegis destroyers and two Dokdo-class amphibious assault ships.
The Sejong the Great-class destroyers are essentially extended versions of the American Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, sharing similarities in appearance and combat systems. This highlights South Korea’s high degree of autonomy and capability in shipbuilding.
The King Sejong the Great-class destroyer is equipped with four Burke-class SPY-1D phased array radars, an 80-unit MK-41 vertical launch system, and a domestically-made 48-unit K-VLS vertical launch system for South Korea’s Hyunmoo cruise missile. With a full load displacement of 11,000 tons, it was the largest Aegis destroyer in East Asia when it entered service.
Another destroyer in the South Korean Navy is the Yi Sun-sin class, which still performs well despite lacking phased array radar. Currently, there are six ships in service.
The Dokdo-class amphibious assault ship has a full load displacement of 18,000 tons, featuring a full-deck design capable of carrying two hovercraft and 15 helicopters.
South Korea’s submarine force is also noteworthy, with a submarine development model learned from Germany. They possess nine 209-class (Zhang Baogao) and nine 214-class (Sun Yuan-class) diesel-electric submarines, all manufactured under license in South Korea.
In recent years, South Korea has developed the Ahn Chang-ho class submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles. There are currently two active ships, and six in total are expected to be built. With a displacement of over 4,000 tons, these submarines are considered large among conventional submarines.
South Korea’s naval construction plan includes the development of a light aircraft carrier exceeding 30,000 tons, expected to join the navy by 2030. Additionally, the budget has been allocated for the new KDDX destroyer with a full load displacement of over 8,000 tons. These destroyers will employ domestically-developed vertical launch systems and six ships are planned to be built, entering service after 2025.
In general, South Korea’s military strength ranks high globally. However, it’s small size and land area lack significant strategic depth in a real conflict.
While it falls behind first-rate military powers like China, the United States, and Russia, it still maintains a notable position among second-tier countries such as France, Germany, and Japan. Overall, South Korea’s military strength places it at the top of the third tier.