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Hanwha gets nod to upgrade military aircraft IFF system

Mar 27,2019
Domestic defense contractor Hanwha Systems has been selected as the preferred bidder to upgrade Korean military aircrafts’ identification technology by the government’s arms procurement agency on Monday.

Hanwha will be responsible for upgrading the Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) systems on over 540 aircrafts to the latest version, known as Mode-5.

According to the Defense Acquisition Program Administration, approximately 2.34 trillion won ($2.07 billion) have been earmarked for IFF system upgrades across the military related to around 2,000 weapons systems, with around 600 billion won deployed toward upgrading IFF on aircraft alone.

Last December, Hanwha was also selected as the preferred bidder to upgrade naval-based IFF systems for 200 billion won.

IFF is a term used to identify sets of equipment - including transponders, control panels and encryption devices - that enable military aircrafts, naval vessels and anti-aircraft systems to distinguish between friendly or hostile targets. The system first came into widespread use in World War II when the advent of radar proved useful in reducing the frequency of friendly fire incidents.

Planes or ships equipped with IFF can instantly decode the messages received from a friendly source and relay a response code that identifies them as friendly, thus preventing inadvertent engagements between friendly or allied forces.

There are currently five forms of IFF systems ranging from 1 to 5 according to their level of encryption and latest technology. Mode-4, which is currently used by the South Korean military, scrambles the identification code assigned to each piece of military hardware like aircraft daily to such an extent that it would be nearly impossible for hostile forces to decrypt the codes even if they got their hands on the equipment.

But an upgrade to an even more sophisticated mode became inevitable once the U.S. military and NATO announced plans to upgrade all of their IFF systems to Mode-5 by 2020. Friendly fire remained an issue for the United States during the Gulf War and War in Afghanistan throughout the last two decades, and the exposure of one of its Lockheed EP-3 reconnaissance planes that was grounded on Hainan Island in southern China in a 2001 incident raised further alarm that a potential adversary like China had access to key identification technology.

For non-NATO U.S. allies like South Korea and Japan, upgrading IFF systems has become a necessity in order to maintain coordination with the United States, particularly due to the numerous joint military exercises regularly conducted between the allies each year. These exercises carry the risk of friendly fire.

The Mode-5 system in development by Hanwha Systems, according to a company spokesman, is equipped with the latest low-probability-of-intercept radar, which reduces the likelihood of detection by enemy radar. It also has an anti-jamming system, as well as enhanced accessibility for operators.

Hanwha has experience in upgrading Korea’s IFF systems to Mode-4 in the early 2000s and has partnerships with foreign defense manufacturers like the United States’ Raytheon and Germany’s Hensoldt, both of which are experienced in the IFF sector, and the country’s flagship carrier Korean Air’s aerospace manufacturing division. These proved to be factors in its selection as the government’s preferred bidder for this project.

According to a press release from the contractor, Hanwha Systems believes its work on the project, in cooperation with around 30 domestic partners, will generate around 440,000 jobs in Korea, as well as enhance the military strength and operational capacity of the Korean military.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]