The inadvertent launch of an anti-aircraft missile at a military base in Chuncheon, Gangwon, on Monday was the result of maintenance accident, the South Korean Air Force said on Thursday.
After it was launched from a vehicle during a routine maintenance check, the Cheongung medium-range surface-to-air (SAM) missile exploded mid-air at around 10:38 p.m. on Monday. There were no casualties, nor was there property damage, but the accident spurred an investigation by the Air Force.
Following an on-site inspection and testimonies from witnesses, investigators concluded that the launch was unintentionally triggered by human error during a routine maintenance check.
“During regular check-ups, mechanics are supposed to disconnect a cable plugged into the missile used in real operations and plug in a testing cable, but the communication between the mechanics was unclear and the check-up was performed without disconnecting the operational cable,” said an Air Force spokesman. “This caused the test launch signal transmitted by the mechanics’ laptop to trigger a launch, and the missile exploded mid-air around 3.5 seconds after launch due to its automatic self-destruction system.”
The missile is equipped with a mechanism that causes it to explode in the event of guidance system failures after launch, according to the Air Force’s briefing on the accident on Monday.
Also known as the Cheolmae-2, the Cheongung SAM system was developed by the domestic arms producer Agency for Defense Development (ADD) based on the Russian 50R6 Vityaz and S-400 Triumf systems. Each missile costs around 1.5 billion won ($1.3 million) to produce, and a total budget of 1.2 trillion won has been allocated toward the project as a whole.
Since the cause of the accident was not a mechanical failure, the Air Force said it plans to operate the missiles as it had before, while referring punishment for the mechanics to an internal disciplinary committee.
“We apologize to the public for causing concern and we will do our best to prevent a recurrence of such an accident in the future,” the spokesman said, adding the Air Force will consult with the missile’s developer ADD, as well as other defense firms.
Put into service in 2017, the Cheongung has been compared to the U.S. Army’s Patriot missile, serving as a key upper tier interceptor in South Korea’s three-tier aerial and missile defense system that is expected to be complete by the 2020s. That project, titled the Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD), will be composed of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system and Patriot PAC-3 missiles deployed by the United States, as well as the Cheongung and L-SAM system, which is currently still in development.
Due to restrictions on U.S. defense firms transferring technology abroad, South Korea has focused on partnerships with Russian firms to obtain the core technology behind its missile shield.
KAMD serves as an integral part of South Korea’s upgrading of its defense capabilities, which are designed to address North Korea’s ballistic missile program. The Cheongung has a maximum range of 40 kilometers (25 miles) and can be guided at both approaching missiles and aircraft, launching missiles that can fly at speed of Mach 4.5, or around 5,500 kilometers per hour (3,418 miles per hour).