Shortly after the end of World War II, the South Korean Air Construction Association was founded on August 10, 1946, to publicize the importance of airpower. Despite the then-scanty status of Korean armed forces, the first air unit was formed on May 5, 1948, under the direction of Dong Wi-bu, the forerunner to the modern South Korean Ministry of National Defence. On September 13, 1949, the United States contributed 10 L-4 Grasshopper observation aircraft to the South Korean air unit. An Army Air Academy was founded in January 1949, and the ROKAF was officially founded in October 1949.
The 1950's were a critical time for the ROKAF as it expanded tremendously during the Korean War. At the outbreak of the war, the ROKAF consisted of 1,800 personnel but was equipped with only 20 trainers and liaison aircraft, including 10 North American T-6 Texan advanced trainers purchased from Canada. The North Korean air force had acquired a considerable number of Yak-9 and La-7 fighters from the Soviet Union, dwarfing the ROKAF in terms of size and strength.
However, during the course of the war, the ROKAF acquired 110 aircraft: 79 fighter-bombers, three fighter squadrons, and one fighter wing. The first combat aircraft received were North American F-51D Mustangs, along with a contingent of US Air Force instructor pilots under the command of Major Dean Hess, as part of Bout One Project. The ROKAF participated in bombing operations and flew independent sorties. After the war, the ROKAF Headquarters was moved to Daebangdong, Seoul. Air Force University was also founded in 1956.
To counter the threat of possible North Korean aggression, the ROKAF underwent a substantial capability enhancement. The ROKAF acquired North American T-28 Trojan trainers, North American F-86D Sabre night- and all-weather interceptors, Northrop F-5 fighters and McDonnell Douglas F-4D Phantom fighter bombers.
Air Force Operations Command was established in 1961 to secure efficient command and control facilities. Air Force Logistics Command was established in 1966, and emergency runways were constructed for emergency use during wartime. The Eunma Unit was founded in 1966 to operate Curtiss C-46 Commando transport aircraft used to support the Republic of Korea Army and Republic of Korea Marine Corps units serving in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
The ROKAF was posed with a security risk, with an increasingly belligerent North Korea throughout the 1970s. The South Korean government increased its expenditure on the ROKAF, resulting in the purchase of Northrop F-5E Tiger II fighters in August 1974 and F-4E fighter-bombers.
Support aircraft, such as Fairchild C-123 Providers and Grumman S-2 Trackers were also purchased at the time. Great emphasis was placed in the flight training program; new trainer aircraft (Cessna T-41 Mescalero and Cessna T-37) were purchased, and the Air Force Education & Training Command was also founded in 1973 to consolidate and enhance the quality of personnel training.
The ROKAF concentrated on the qualitative expansion of aircraft to catch up to the strength of the North Korean Air Force. In 1982, Korean variants of the F-5E, the Jegong-ho were first produced. The ROKAF gathered a good deal of information on the North Korean Air Force when Captain Lee Woong-pyeong, a North Korean pilot, defected to South Korea. The Korean Combat Operations Information centre was soon formed and the Air Defence System was automated to attain air superiority against North Korea.
When the 1988 Seoul Olympics was held in South Korea, the ROKAF contributed to the success of this event by helping to oversee the entire security system. The ROKAF also moved its headquarters and the Air Force Education & Training Command to other locations. Forty General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters were purchased in 1989.
South Korea committed its support for coalition forces during the Persian Gulf War, forming the "Bima Unit" to fight in the war. The ROKAF also provided airlift support for peacekeeping operations in Somalia in 1993. The increased participation in international operations depicted the ROKAF's elevated international position. Over 180 KF-16 fighters of F-16 Block 52 specifications were introduced as part of the Peace Bridge II & III program from 1994. In 1997, for the first time in Korean aviation history, female cadets were accepted into the Korean Air Force Academy.
The last of the old South Korean 60 F-5A/B fighters were all retired in August 2007, and they were replaced with the F-15K and F/A-50. On October 20, 2009, Bruce S. Lemkin, deputy under-secretary of the U.S. Air Force said that the ROKAF's limited intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities increased the risk of instability on the Korean Peninsula and suggested the purchase of American systems such as the F-35 Lightning II to close this gap.
The South Korean Air Force also expressed interests in acquiring the RQ-4 Global Hawk remotely piloted vehicle (RPV) and a number of Joint Direct Attack Munition conversion kits to further improve its intelligence and offensive capabilities. In 2014, Northrop Grumman awarded a contract to provide South Korea with four RQ-4 Global.
The South Korean Airforce acquired 40 F-35s and +20 additional F-35. Earlier this year the US State Department approved the sale of upgrades to South Korea's F-16s.
The KF-X program is an early-stage project to develop an indigenous fighter aircraft. The current proposal is to develop an F-16 Block 50 class aircraft with basic stealth capabilities to replace the F-4D/E Phantom II and F-5E/F Tiger II aircraft.
South Korea is reportedly seeking technological assistance from Saab, Boeing and Lockheed Martin for the production of the KF-X. On 15 July 2010, the Indonesia government agreed to fund 20% of the KF-X project cost in return of around 50 planes built for the Indonesian Air Force after project completion. In September 2010, Indonesia sent a team of legal and aviation experts to South Korea to discuss copyright issues of the aircraft. In December 2010 the program shifted from an F-16 class fighter to a stealth aircraft in order to respond to North Korean pressure.
The KF-X is envisioned as a medium fighter to at first supplement, then replace the ROK Air Force's KF-16 fleet. It will have capabilities in between the light FA-50 fighter and the high-grade, long-range, heavy payload F-15K and F-35 Lightning II.
South Korea has resumed a once-aborted program to develop Medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle to bolster its monitoring capabilities of North Korea's missile and nuclear programs. The state-funded Agency for Defence Development launched the indigenous drone development project in 2006 and made a prototype in May 2010. The medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV is designed to fly at an altitude of up to 10 kilometres and its radar can scan as far as 100 km. Korea hopes to complete the development of combat drones by 2018. The overall performance of the drones under development in Korea is believed to be similar to the MQ-9 Reaper.
In the middle of 2017, the PIP missile(M-SAM Block II) began its final tests, during which it shot down five of five practice ballistic missile targets. Seven batteries are scheduled for deployment throughout South Korea by 2022.
L-SAM refers to a locally made long-range surface-to-air missile current under development, while the Cheolmae II, also known as KM-SAM, is a domestically manufactured medium-range surface-to-air missile capable of engaging an incoming target at an altitude as high as 20 kilometres. The new project has been nicknamed the K-THAAD due to its planned long-range of 25 to 93 miles and ability to hit targets high as 200,000 feet. Nearly $1 billion has been devoted to the L-SAM or Cheolmae-4, which is scheduled for completion in 2022 with the deployment of four batteries to follow a year or two afterwards.
The ROKAF Air Defence Artillery Command transferred from the Republic of Korea Army's air defence artillery and was established as a basic branch on 1 July 1991. Following the establishment of the ROKAF Air Defence Artillery Command as a separate service in 1991, the army began to develop further its own air defence artillery assets (short-range SAM, SPAAG and man-portable air-defence systems) in support of ground operations.