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McGrath: Put North Korea on Our Collective Radar

When North Korea’s brutal dictator Kim Jong Il died, many hoped the world would become a safer place. But the long history of North Korean aggression and repression caution against optimism.

It remains in the vital interest of the United States and our Asian allies that South Korea be equipped both to protect against attacks from North Korea and to act as the first line of defense against the rogue nuclear power.

In that effort, the United States must make sure that the South Korean air force is one of the best in the world. South Korea’s American-manufactured F-16 fighter jets must be able to respond quickly and effectively to any provocation.

Currently, the country’s F-16 jets are primarily older planes. Many were produced more than 35 years ago. While these planes have been upgraded to incorporate some evolving technologies, they lack the radar technology essential to maintaining an edge on the battlefield.

Active Electronically Scanned Array radar can help provide such an edge. It represents a major upgrade in overall radar performance and would enable South Korean F-16s to conduct both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions simultaneously.

AESA units also require less maintenance than older models, making them much more reliable and cost effective. This radar is combat-proven technology that U.S. pilots have used for more than a decade, and it’s already approved for sale to our allies.

Incorporating AESA radar into existing F-16s would enhance mission coordination between South Korea and other Asia-Pacific allies that already use it in their jets. And because the United States uses this technology, a South Korean upgrade would mean increased interoperability for joint security missions in the region.

South Korea is already looking to upgrade its F-16s from the mechanically scanned radar units to the superior AESA technology. The South Korean air force is holding a competition to pick the best supplier for the AESA system.

It is essential that South Korea improve its air capabilities as soon as possible. Any delay in adopting such a critical and proven technology would certainly exacerbate the security threats in the region.

Given the cuts planned for the U.S. military, it is critical that the United States fully support the efforts of our allies to increase their defense capabilities. American political and military leadership should strongly encourage the South Koreans to go ahead with their plans to adopt AESA radar.

Improving their air force capability is in line with the U.S. government’s stated desire to see South Korea and other Asian partners take a more proactive role in regional security. The sooner the South Korean military develops the necessary capabilities to take the lead in handling the rapidly evolving threats on the Korean peninsula, the better.

North Korea is one of the world’s most oppressive and unpredictable regimes — and it has nuclear weapons. The United States needs to do everything in its power to contain this country. Encouraging the South Korean air force to incorporate advanced radar technology into its F-16s can help mitigate the chances of irresponsible action by North Korea — and will make the world safer.

When it comes to addressing the threat of North Korea, we can’t afford to wait.

C. Dean McGrath Jr. is an attorney with McGrath & Associates in Washington,D.C., and an adjunct professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center. He previously worked as deputy chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, deputy assistant to President George H.W. Bush, special counsel in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and associate counsel to President Ronald Reagan.

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