While it may seem more likely that the unstable North Korean regime might fire off some kind of nuclear weapon or long-range ballistic missile to attack or intimidate South Korea, the possibility of some kind of massive, mechanized ground assault across the DMZ cannot be fully discounted.
South Korea’s deterrence posture, it would seem, would be well served by preparing to repel some kind of armored assault from the North.
This kind of deterrence could of course be achieved by simply maintaining a modernized, trained and well-equipped standing Army to defend the border, yet it also stands to reason that preventing this kind of attack could be a main reason why South Korea is picking up the F-35.
South Korea F-35s
Of course the existence of a stealthy 5th-generation fighter such as the F-35 could give South Korea an increased ability to destroy North Korean air defenses, achieve air superiority or even track and attack the North’s known arsenal of road-mobile missile launchers.
Beyond this somewhat self-evident circumstance, an F-35 could prove decisive and impactful in any kind of defensive stand against a North Korean invasion.
This is particularly true given the glaring discrepancy between the North and South Korean Armies.
North and South Korean Armies
- Globalfirepower.com lists North Korea as now operating a sizeable 1.3 million man active duty force, with millions more in paramilitary support.
- Their military reportedly operates as many as 6,000 tanks and 10,000 armored vehicles alongside a well known arsenal of medium range ballistic missiles capable of reaching major South Korean cities.
- South Korea, by comparison, is listed by Global Firepower as having only 600,000 active duty forces as several million fewer paramilitary capable soldiers, when compared with North Korea.
- Perhaps of even greater consequence, South Korea is cited as operating only 2,800 tanks, less than one half of North Korea’s 6,000.
F-35s - Massive Air Superiority Advantage
What this means, it would seem clear, is that having massive air superiority in the form of an F-35 force would give South Korea a very credible and realistic chance of destroying an invasion from a much larger North Korean Army.
North Korean forces could be killed from the air, and ideally its mobile ballistic missile launcher within North Korea could be destroyed from the air by South Korean F-35s.
Accordingly, would it be a stretch to suggest that having a fleet of ready F-35s might actually save South Korea? Maybe. It would seem that, given the known capabilities of the F-35 and the obvious absence of any kind of North Korean equivalent, a South Korean F-35 force might make a North Korean invasion much less likely.
Added to the overall equation is the networking and allied advantages associated with the F-35, as South Korea’s deterrence posture will be greatly fortified and strengthened by a large Japanese F-35 force along with a regular U.S. presence of F-35C-armed carriers and F-35B-armed amphibs.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.