South Korea Installing Thermal Sights On Its Vulcan Anti-Aircraft Guns For Good Reason

Republic Of Korea (ROK) forces will begin having their decades old 20mm Vulcan anti-aircraft guns updated with thermal imaging sensors by 2019, and there is good reason for doing so. North Korea has multiple interdiction techniques that feature very low radar cross-section platforms that would fly at night and at very low altitude into South Korean airspace during a time of war—with some likely passing well within the engagement envelopes of South Korea’s M167A3 towed Vulcan Air Defense Systems (VADS) and K263A1 self-propelled derivative of the VADS, which is based on the K200 Korean Infantry Fighting Vehicle.

These North Korean interdiction platforms include throngs of low-flying An-2 biplanes and paragliders. These aircraft would deliver hardened special operations soldiers, with some of them venturing deep into South Korean territory, on one-way missions. Here’s how we described this set of asymmetric tactics in a recent post on the An-2’s unique role within North Korea’s order of battle:

“During the dark of night, as part of the opening throws of a battle royale between South Korea, the U.S. and North Korea, hundreds of these old radial engine biplanes will fly low over the ground at slow speed, penetrating deep into South Korean airspace. For the vast majority of their crews it will be a one-way mission—to deliver Kim Jong Un’s hardest shock troops deep behind enemy lines. This is done via low altitude air drop, as seen above, or by landing in short stretches of fields or roadways.  

The missions of these North Korean suicide assault teams are many fold, but generally they pertain to creating total havoc deep inside South Korean territory. This includes attacking key infrastructure and military installations, and generally sowing massive terror among the already frightened South Korean populace. This deep insertion tactic alone is one of the main reasons why installations like air bases in South Korea must be prepared for instant war, even on the foot soldier level.”

There is also a growing threat from North Korean unmanned aircraft which have been penetrating into South Korean territory for years now on reconnaissance missions. North Korean drones are rudimentary, but they could also be launched in large quantities to crudely attack various locales in South Korea, or even potentially deliver chemical or biological agents. The ongoing nuisance of North Korean propaganda leaflet toting balloons landing in South Korea territory has also become more pronounced as of late. 

Various types of North Korean drones have crashed in South Korea over the last decade, with their capabilities slowly becoming more advanced over time., AP

As you can see, the need is clear for short-range air defenses (SHORADs) that can detect, track, and engage small targets with tiny radar signatures and in the darkness of night. Fitting existing Vulcan Air Defense Systems with a thermal targeting system is at least a relatively inexpensive partial solution to the problem. 

ROK forces train with their M167 Vulcan Air Defense System. It’s a tight little package that has a range of up to a couple miles. , DoD

 Currently South Korean VADS have optical radar assisted targeting, with a dated AN/TVS-5 night vision scope being used for engaging targets after sundown. But compared to a thermal/infrared system, the very narrow field of view and non thermal imaging night vision sight is a poor, if not totally unworkable solution to problem.

The telescope-like AN/TVS-5 was developed in the 1970s for low-light weapons targeting.,

If the thermal targeting system is equipped with a boresighted laser rangefinder, M167A3 and K263A1 operators could know exactly when the target is within their cannon’s reach. It may be possible to use the VADS radar to do this as well if it is sensitive enough to lock onto the target once the thermal system gets in pointed in exactly the right position. 

The Vulcan Air Defense System (VADS) was introduced into US Army service 1967. The M167 is a self-contained trailer mounted anti-aircraft system based around the M61 Vulcan 20mm cannon that was already becoming the standard gun in fighter aircraft of the era. Earlier versions were optically guided by a crew of two, with a radar only used for ranging, but later versions included a fire control radar that actively assisted in targeting. A self propelled version of the VADS was also put into service. It used the M113 Armored Personnel Carrier as a chassis and was dubbed the M163.

VADS provided the lowest tier of air defense both for soldiers in the field and for high value installations. It can be rapidly redeployed with troops on the move and it had a max rate of fire of roughly 3,000 rounds per minute, which was de-rated from the aircraft version of the M61 Vulcan that could fire upwards of 6,000 rounds per minute. But still, even at 3,000 rounds per minute, VADS’ 1,000 round magazine would be depleted quickly during a multi-target engagement. Lower rates of fire down to about 1,000 rounds per minute are also available for operators to select.

M163 VADS at Fort Irwin in 1988., US Army

Beginning in 1994, VADS was replaced by AN/TWQ-1 Avenger system that soldiers on till this day. The VADS concept had something of a rebirth of sorts in the mid 2000s in the form of the Centurion counter rocket, artillery, and mortar (C-RAM) system, which itself was based on the sea-going Mk15 Phalanx close-in weapons system (CIWS). Centurion shared a similar 20mm Vulcan cannon but it was a much more cumbersome and complex system than VADS, and its mission was different, being used for defeating indirect fire attacks, not taking down aircraft. 

Even though VADS has been out of service with U.S. forces for many years, a bunch of these systems were exported around the globe with about a half dozen countries still using them today. Some of these systems are upgraded to include FLIR turrets, networking, and other enhancements.

South Korea’s K263A1., Republic of Korea Armed Forces

The ironic thing is that VADS is that it is becoming relevant once again, not just along the DMZ and near key installations in South Korea, but also in the ranks of the U.S. Army’s combat units that could find themselves undertaking expeditionary missions in contested territory in the not so distant future. We have detailed America’s gaping short-range air defense gap, and especially U.S. ground forces vulnerability to low-end drones

An upgraded VADS could be at least a temporary solution for providing formations of American troops with a quick-reacting and available form of close-in air defense. This type could also augment the aging Avenger, with its eight Stinger missiles and far less powerful .50 caliber gun, and do the same for new systems that are more focused on using expensive missiles for short-to-intermediate range air defense than relatively cheap and plentiful 20mm cartridges. 

South Korean VADS after use. , ROK

With tensions at unprecedented levels on the Korean Peninsula, South Korea doesn’t need such a capability to counter a potential threat sometime in the future, they need this capability to counter a threat that could rear its ugly head tonight. And even though these systems won’t be able to take down anywhere near what the North could potentially throw at them, they can make a big dent in Pyongyang’s infiltration and drone attack plans. 

This alone could save a lot of lives and allow for ROK and US forces to better defend themselves from such an onslaught of semi-suicidal commandoes. Also, VADS could help provide a last line of aerial defense for high value installations and other key facilities that North Korea may specifically target using non-traditional means. 

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Tyler Rogoway


Tyler's passion is the study of military technology, strategy, and foreign policy and he has fostered a dominant voice on those topics in the defense media space. He was the creator of the hugely popular defense site Foxtrot Alpha before developing The War Zone.