In mid-2021 South Korea revealed its 2022 military budget and one of the more interesting items was $2.56 billion for a South Korean C-RAM (Counter-Rocket, Artillery and Mortar) system suitable for the very specific needs of South Korea. Obtaining such a system had been discussed in detail for several years and by 2020 there seemed to be a consensus that a C-RAM was essential to defend key civilian and military targets within long range artillery and rocket range of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) separating North and South Korea. South Korea had examined other C-RAM systems already in use by the United States. Germany and Israel. None met South Korea’s unique needs. Developing, testing, manufacturing, and deploying this South Korean C-RAM system is expected to take until 2035.
The South Korea capital, Seoul is only 40 kilometers from the DMZ and the Seoul metropolitan area is where much of South Korean economic growth took place in the last fifty years. South Korea is now among the top ten economies on the planet and the one with the second smallest (after Canada) population. The Seoul region contains half of South Korea’s population and about 40 percent of the economy (GDP). North Korea has, since the 1950s, stationed hundreds of long-range artillery and rockets that could reach Seoul. The quantity and quality of those weapons increased as Seoul became a more valuable target.
The first successful C-RAM was an American system first used in Iraq in 2006, withdrawn in 2011 and returned in 2020. Officially its name is Centurion, but hardly anyone uses that name. C-RAM is a modified, land-based version of the U.S. Navy Phalanx anti-missile system. It weighs 27 tons and is transported by a large flatbed tractor-trailer. At sea Phalanx is the last line of defense against anti-ship missiles. C-RAM was first created to defend American bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, which it continued doing until the U.S. left Afghanistan in 2021. C-RAM is still used successfully in several parts of Iraq. Several foreign nations have bought C-RAM and users are satisfied with its performance. C-RAM works 24/7 and needs a lot of maintenance. Often civilians, usually retired sailors with Phalanx experience, are hired to operate and maintain C-RAM systems. Phalanx is used by sixteen other navies besides the American fleet so many nations have personnel familiar with Phalanx and are inclined to purchase C-RAM. In 2008 a more mobile C-RAM on a heavy truck with a power supply arrived so that this C-RAM could be quickly moved around and put to work quickly.
Germany developed its own C-RAM system by modifying its Skyguard 35mm self-propelled anti-aircraft system to operate as a C-RAM. Skyguard has been around since the 1960s, undergone several major upgrades and is still produced.
The German MANTIS C-RAM was ready for service in 2008 and was sent to Afghanistan in 2011 for testing in a combat zone and was found to be more capable than the American C-RAM. While the basic concept and function of original C-RAM was still there the MANTIS was more complex in terms of equipment and software. MANTIS had a radar and control unit linked with two separate 35 mm/1000 KDG autocannon that could swivel quickly to face a target. The radar detects and identifies likely targets and then, when they were 3,000 meters away, one or both 35mm autocannon fire a burst of 12-24 shells which automatically explode near the target. Each 35mm ABM-KETF shell disperses 152 tiny (3.3 g each or 8.5 per ounce) tungsten rods to disable any shell or rocket passing through. The MANTIS fire control system automatically calculates the speed and trajectory of the incoming target, aligns the 35mm guns and fires the burst of shells that will create a large enough tungsten cloud to intercept. All this takes a few seconds and it worked reliably, after a few tweaks, before it got to Afghanistan in 2011. A MANTIS system consists of two radar control systems and six 35mm autocannon each on its own swivel platform. German troops also used MANTIS successfully in Mali in 2017. There is also a ship-based system used as an improved, but more expensive, Phalanx.
The modifications in Phalanx and Skyguard were also similar. Phalanx uses high explosive 20mm shells that detonate near the target, spraying it with fragments. By the time these fragments reach the ground they are generally too small to injure anyone. The 35mm shell used by MANTIS has about 50 percent more range (3,000 meters) than Phalanx but that does not seem to make much difference.
The original Phalanx used 20mm depleted uranium shells to slice through incoming missiles but the high-explosive shell was needed to ensure destruction of the smaller (than missiles) targets shells and rockets presented. Phalanx fires shells at the rate of 75 per second. Another advantage of C-RAM is that it makes a distinctive noise when firing, warning people nearby that a mortar or rocket attack is underway, giving people an opportunity to duck inside if they are out and about.
South Korea considered the American and German C-RAM systems inadequate to their very specific needs. The Seoul metro region is much larger than any area C-RAM or MANTIS was designed to defend and it was unable to handle the thousands of 170mm artillery shells North Korea had for their sixty or so 170mm self-propelled guns. These shells had a range of 40-54 kilometers. There are over a thousand long range rockets able to reach anywhere in the Seoul region. More of these rockets are converted to use GPS guidance each year.
Israel offered its Iron Dome system but this system used missiles and was not very effective against artillery shells. South Korea may yet purchase some Mantis or Iron Dome systems before the mid-2030s to protect some particularly valuable and vulnerable targets. For now, South Korea decided the threat against Seoul from North Korea will be around for a while longer. A unique C-RAM is part of the solution to this threat that has been around for over sixty years and now seems capable of persisting for a few decades more.