Doubts arise over South Korea’s ‘Sea Bow’ missile interception ability

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A screen shows a news program in Tokyo about a North Korean missile launch. The North's Kumsong-3 missile is a variant of the Russian Kh-35 anti-ship cruise missile. (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

SEOUL — South Korea’s indigenous close-in weapon system, currently in the final development phase, will be unable to thwart incoming missiles based on test evaluations, according to military and industry sources.

Nicknamed “Sea Bow,” the Korean surface-to-air anti-missile (K-SAAM) has been in development since 2011 to replace Raytheon’s Rolling Airframe Missile and provide close-in defense for warships. The state-funded Agency for Defense Development is in charge the $140 million project to produce the medium-range, ship-based missile in collaboration with LIG Nex1, a precision-guided missile manufacture.

The project hit a snag, however, as the development period was extended by two years following test failures in 2016, when two of the five missiles missed their respective targets.

In a fresh round of operational tests that began last year, the missile successfully hit nine of the 10 targets, the developers said. But the test results are in dispute since the criteria for the tests were set too lenient to address real-world threats, said a source with knowledge of the evaluations.

“Of the 10 missiles, only two missiles are known to have hit targets being flown low to the sea, while others hit incoming targets as high as over 30 meters above the sea,” the source told Defense News, speaking on condition of anonymity. “That means the K-SAAM has not been proved fairly enough to respond to sea-skimming missiles fired by enemy forces.”

The 3.07-meter-long K-SAAM is scheduled to be fitted on the 14,500-ton amphibious landing ship Marado.

“An even bigger problem is that the missile flew just around Mach 0.5, far slower than an average speed of anti-ship, guided missiles run by neighboring countries,” the source added. “Simply, the tests were not realistic to evaluate the performances of the close-in weapon system.”

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The source referred to North Korea’s Kumsong-3 subsonic anti-ship missile as an example of a real-world threat. A derivative of the Russian Kh-35U missile, the Kumsong-3 can fly as fast as Mach 0.8 with a cruising altitude of 10-15 meters, and with a terminal altitude of 4 meters.

In comparison, China, for instance, has the CM-302 supersonic air-launched anti-ship missile with a speed of Mach 2 to Mach 3, while Japan has the Type 90 ship-to-ship missile that can fly Mach 0.9 at an altitude of 5-6 meters.

Russia operates the 300-kilometer-range Yakhont anti-ship cruise missile with a speed of Mach 2.5 to Mach 4.5. It can cruise at an altitude of 10 meters and at a terminal altitude of 1 meter.

The K-SAAM developers insist the evaluations met the required operational capability, or ROC. “The operational tests were appropriate to meet the ROC,” a Navy source involved in the K-SAAM evaluations said, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the evaluation process.

“The close-in weapon system is designed to address various types of threats, so we proceeded with the tests at different angles and altitudes,” he said. “It’s not true we have lowered the standards for the passage of the evaluations.”

But Shin In-kyun, head of the Seoul-based private think tank Korea Defense Network, has doubts.

“Should the tests be conducted in line with the ROC, I believe the ROC was set incorrectly,” Shin said. “Moreover, the close-in weapon system is the last line of defense against enemy attacks, so the evaluations of the system should be stricter than any other system to protect the lives of our soldiers on the front lines.”

The 3.07-meter-long K-SAAM is scheduled to be fitted in new FFX-II/III frigates and the second 14,500-ton amphibious landing ship, named Marado, which was launched in May. The missile is to be housed in a four-cell vertical launch system, four of which are intended to be fitted to the warships, providing 16 missiles per ship.

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