Col. Park Ki-tae, inaugural chief of ROK Air Force’s Space Operations Center. Credit: ROK Air Force

SUNGNAM, South Korea — Joint drills between the U.S. Space Force and Republic of Korea (ROK) Air Force will focus on enhancing space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities of both sides, a senior air force officer said.

The ROK Air Force is set to perform joint drills with the U.S. Space Force under an Aug. 27 agreement signed between ROK Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Park In-ho, and U.S. Space Force Gen. John W. Raymond, chief of space operations, at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“What we urgently need is ‘eyes’ to look at what’s happening in outer space,” said ROK Air Force Col. Park Ki-tae, inaugural chief of the air force’s Space Operations Center, during an Oct. 20 military technology seminar held here as part of the Seoul International Aerospace and Defense Exhibition 2021. Park’s center, launched last month, is responsible for drawing a strategic roadmap to build the air force’s space power.

“One of the primary things we want to achieve through cooperation with the U.S. Space Force is improving our capabilities to detect dangerous objects in space and how to avoid them when they approach our satellites,” Park said. Improved capabilities will also make it possible for South Korea’s air force to issue a warning in a timely manner when an object falls to Earth from space, he said. For its part, he added, the ROK Air Force is building its own SSA infrastructure — including an electro-optical satellite surveillance system, a space weather forecast and warning system and reconnaissance satellites — with the goal of making it fully operational by the mid-2020s. In line with this, South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) recently signed a $13.9 million contract with Satrec Initiative to develop a space weather forecast system. Once developed, the system will help prevent satellites, high-altitude surveillance drones, and guided weapons systems from malfunctioning due to disruptions that space weather conditions could cause in GPS signals, according to DAPA.

Park said the air force has improved its SSA capabilities since 2017 through joint projects with Korea Aerospace Research Institute, and Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute. And being part of U.S. Space Force’s drills will help sharpen its edge further in SSA, the colonel said.

Satellite navigation is another field of cooperation between the two organizations, Park said. South Korea is set to build its own satellite navigation system, named Korea Positioning System (KPS), in cooperation with the United States by 2035. The system will comprise eight satellites — three in geosynchronous orbit and five in inclined geosynchronous orbit — that are interoperable with the existing GPS satellites managed by the U.S. Space Force.

“The basis of KPS is GPS, so we need to learn technological and operational know-how about satellite navigation systems from the U.S. Space Force,” Park said.

He said under the “Space Odyssey 2050” strategy unveiled last year, the South Korea’s air force is moving to add a satellite laser tracking system, a space object laser tracking system, small satellite launchers and a satellite jamming system to its space assets by the late-2020s in order to have a “full-fledged space monitoring capacity and limited ability to perform military operations in space.”

Park said while South Korea needs various forms of space launch vehicles to ensure quick and cost-effective satellite launches, an air-launched system is “particularly necessary considering the geographical features of the country.” South Korea faces North Korea on its north side, China on the west, and Japan on the east. South is the only direction at which the nation can launch a space rocket from its soil without overflying its neighbors. In July, the Air Force asked Korean Air, South Korea’s biggest airline, and Seoul National University to conduct joint research on the feasibility of using modified Boeing 747-400 aircraft for air-launching space rockets and orbital vehicles.

Park Si-soo covers space industries in South Korea, Japan and other Asian countries. Park worked at The Korea Times — South Korea's leading English language newspaper — from 2007 to 2020. He earned a master’s degree in science journalism from Korea...