by Robin Polderman
Vienna: Harpia / Philadelphia: Casemate, 2021. Pp. 256.
Illus., appends, biblio., index. $59.95 paper. ISBN: 1950394077
ROK Air Power
Years ago, at an otherwise dull embassy reception in Washington, I found myself refilling my glass of ginger ale at the bar alongside the air attaché from an Asian country. When he sensed that there was no one more significant around and that I constituted a potential audience, he launched into a diatribe that, unlike most delivered in Washington, demonstrated a command of English, a knowledge of history, and a darkly sardonic sense of humor. Among the many, many things he was unhappy about was the absence of writing in English about air arms such as his own, whose capabilities and achievements were unfairly little known outside his home country.
He had a point. Airpower history misses out when it focusses just on the major players. The Italians, Ottomans and Mexicans all had cadres of combat-experienced pilots before 1914, years ahead of the US. Both sides’ air arms in the Spanish Civil War had to adapt to become innovators in military aviation in the heat of combat, using access provided by foreign patrons. It is not always the big air arms that are the significant ones.
Wherever this colonel is now, I hope his pension runs to a copy of this book. While it is not a history, nor is it about his air arm, it is the sort of book he wanted to see written. Issued by Harpia, an Austria-based English-language publisher specializing in aircraft and aviation subjects and distributed by Casemate in the US, Modern South Korean Air Power, The Republic of Korea Air Force Today is not primarily a history, which is mainly summarized in an introductory chapter. Nor is it a study of airpower’s significant role in either the Korean peninsula’s balance of forces or the Republic of Korea’s (deepening) national security challenges. The threats the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) faces – mainly asymmetric rather than from high-technology airpower like its own – require their own book-length treatments. This treatment of current capabilities of the Korean aerospace industry, capable of overhauling fighters for the US Air Force and offering trainer designs for US competitions, does not show how it struggled to achieve this, nor its overall place in the national economy and the changing political picture (South Korean voters do not appreciate jet noise any more than their foreign counterparts).
Its subtitle provides an accurate description of the subject matter. The text is organized around individual chapters, each providing descriptions of an aircraft or missile, describing their role and how and when they entered service. The book is extensively illustrated with 175 color photographs, well printed on glossy paper. Every type of aircraft or missile currently (or recently) in service with the ROKAF gets at least one photograph, and most receive several, and these are supplemented by many illustrations of unit insignias.
This approach brings home to the reader that, while US designs still predominate in the ROKAF, as they have since its inception, it flies an increasing number of indigenous designs (some of which are proving competitive on the world markets) as well as aircraft acquired from Russia, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The ROKAF is a high technology air arm. Its Boeing E-7As represent next-generation technology compared with the US Air Force E-3G AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) flying the same missions. The ROKAF is putting F-35A Joint Strike Fighters into service at the same time as the US Air Force; no more second-hand fighters. Ongoing projects for a sixth-generation fighter design and aircraft carriers capable of operating F-35Bs show Korea’s commitment to producing and projecting world-class airpower. However, the focus on the aircraft and missiles rather than the larger picture obscures that the ROKAF is, and remains, a Korean force that does things in Korean ways (which are themselves rapidly changing).
The focus remains on the ROKAF. General reference material on performance and systems is limited unless it distinguishes Korean versions; a wise approach to avoid padding the book with material that may be available in multiple current sources. Over half the book, however, is devoted to putting the aircraft and missiles in context. History, camouflage and markings, order of battle and organization (including organization charts), training, the (highly ambitious) current modernization program, the aerospace industry and the ROKAF’s threats (North Korea and China) and friends (US) are each treated in their own well-illustrated chapter. Two color maps show airbase locations in Korea and throughout northeast Asia. The only disappointment is the limited bibliography, two pages of English language sources. South Korea’s Army, Navy and Coast Guard aviation are not within the author’s scope of coverage, unfortunate as they are unlikely to merit their own in-depth book-length treatment.
This book represents a good first step for writing about the ROKAF and a worthwhile – even if not comprehensive -- model for writing about other air arms. Harpia has already published additional books in the same series. I think the long-ago air attaché would have (sardonically) approved and looked forward to one on his own air force.
Our Reviewer: David Isby’s writings on current and historical airpower include The Decisive Duel: Spitfire vs. 109 (London: Little Brown, 2012) and Fighter Combat in the Jet Age (London: Harper Collins, 1997) and articles for Air International, Air Forces Monthly and other magazines. A veteran historian, defense analyst, and war game designer, Isby has quit e a number of other books, articles, and games to his credit covering the Second World War, the military institutions of the Soviet Union, and military aviation in general. During the Soviet-Afghan War he observed the fighting on the front lines, and he is the author of Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires: A New History of the Borderland (New York: Pegasus, 2011). His previous reviews include A Military History of Afghanistan, The Elite: The A–Z of Modern Special Operations Forces, Taranto and Naval Air Warfare in the Mediterranean, Airpower in the War against ISIS, Korean Air War: Sabres, MiGs and Meteors, 1950–53, and How the Army Made Britain a Global Power.
StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium