[Exclusive] Military Slamed for Neglecting Soldiers' Welfare
By Jung Sung-ki
Dec. 2, 2009
The military is under fire for turning its back on requirements for the safety and welfare of soldiers in the field.
A case in point is the upgrade plan of K1A1 battle tanks. In 2007, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), the Army and the developer of the tank, Hyundai Rotem, consulted one another about the requirements for the K1A1 upgrade.
Several upgrade items were decided on at that time with a focus on equipping the tank with the C4I network-centric battlefield management systems. The modification work is scheduled to start in 2012 after the production of the K1A1s has been completed.
Ignoring a suggestion by the Army and Hyundai Rotem, however, the JCS excluded the installation of an air conditioning system in the tank from the list of upgrade requirements, according to a military source.
``The military has come up with an ambitious catch phrase of developing advanced and digitalized armed forces. But the mindset of decision-makers in the military has rarely changed and appears to remain in the older, analog era,'' the source said.
The rationale behind the JCS's decision was that ``an air conditioning system doesn't affect field operations much, and soldiers can and should overcome such a difficulty in the field,'' the source said on condition of anonymity.
Critics say such an argument is anachronistic and contradictory to the military's pursuit of improving the welfare of soldiers.
The soldiers have also begun to complain about JCS's negligence.
``In the summer, it's quite tough to conduct a field exercise inside a battle tank. Tank operators sometimes suffer heat exhaustion and may suffer heat stroke on extremely hot days,'' a sergeant at a mechanized division in Gyeonggi Province told The Korea Times.
``If the military plans to spend money for upgrading the K1A1 tank to an up-to-date one, why doesn't it consider installing the air conditioning system? The military leadership should understand what soldiers in the field really want, not just speaking of military modernization.''
Most high-end tanks in operation around the world, including the M1A1 tank used by the U.S. Forces Korea, are equipped with the air conditioning system, a basic operational requirement. The indigenous K2 Black Panther main battle tank, which will begin service in the coming years, will also have the system.
Hyundai Rotem is worried that the lack of an air conditioning system might negatively affect exporting the K1A1 to Southeast Asia and other nations in warmer regions.
During the Seoul International Aerospace and Defense Exhibition (ADEX) 2009 held in October, delegates from Thailand, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia showed keen interest in the K1A1 upgrade plans and the K2 tank, according to officials at the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA).
Against that backdrop, Hyundai has already invested in developing an air conditioning system for the K1A1, without budget support from the military.
``We're developing an air conditioning system for the K1A1 and hope that the JCS and DAPA will review the plan positively in terms of the welfare of soldiers as well as the tank's future exports,'' a Hyundai official said, requesting to remain anonymous.
Earlier this year, the JCS was under fire for neglecting the safety of sailors operating in waters off the piracy-ridden Somalia coast. Even after receiving a warning about the possibility that Somali pirates could acquire surface-to-air guided missiles, the JCS didn't' take any measure to protect its sailors there, nor did they install missile protection equipment in a destroyer's Lynx helicopter.
Almost all navies deployed to the Somali waters are operating maritime helicopters equipped with flare launchers, infrared guided missile countermeasure devices and radar warning receivers.
The JCS at that time promised it would come up with countermeasures to cope with any potential threat but has failed to deliver on its promise since then. The only measure it took was to supply 25-kilometer-range marine binoculars for spotters in the helicopter of the Cheonghae unit.
Intelligence authorities said Somalia's pirates were presumed to have obtained Stinger shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles from al-Qaeda. The Stinger missile can hit targets flying as high as 3,500 meters at a speed of Mach 2. It has a range of 8 kilometers.
The Somali pirates also run sophisticated operations using high-tech equipment such as satellite phones, rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers and GPS receivers. They are also known to have acquired Soviet-era anti-aircraft missiles such as the SA-7 and SA-18.