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South Korean Naval Modernization

Many observers have been tremendously impressed in the year-by-year transformation that the ROKN has undertaken in the new century. Given the trajectory by 2015, the South Korean Navy would within the following decade complete a transformation from a glorified shore patrol in the early 2000s to one of the world's leading navies. Its peer group would be countries like Japan, the UK, and France. In the scale and pace of improvement and development, there was no comparable in the developed world. The only possible comparison is China, whose circumstances and resources are, of course, different.

During the 1980s, the navy's modernization program focused on antisubmarine warfare and the deployment of new types of indigenously produced submarines, frigates, missile-equipped fast attack craft, and patrol boats. In 1990 South Korean shipbuilders were building two indigenously designed naval vessels, and they had coproduction agreements with United States, Italian, and German companies for several other types of ships. Four shipbuilders--Hyundai, Daewoo, Korea Tacoma, and Korean Shipbuilding and Engineering -- constructed South Korean-designed Ulsan-class frigates and Tonghae-class corvettes for the navy. During the 1980s, Korea Tacoma, a South Korean-owned subsidiary of the United States Tacoma Boatbuilding Company, produced one class of patrol gunboat and one class of landing ship for the navy.

On 12 February 1999 the Defense Ministry announced that the Korean Navy would have three Aegis-class destroyers within 10 years under a medium-term defense procurement project. Each of the 7,000-ton destroyers would cost about 1 trillion won, or approximately $840 million. Design of the warship would start in the year 2001 and the first would be launched in 2009 or 2010, according to ministry officials.

Through the 1990s the navy remained a small force primarily dedicated to protecting the nation's territorial waters and islands. Now it has started to take on the features of an "Ocean-Going Navy" of the 21st century by building and commissioning Korean versions of a destroyer (KDX), a heavy landing ship (LST), a mine laying ship (MLS), and a mine hunting ship (MHC). The new Navy fleet would be made up of Aegis-class destroyers, next-generation submarines and anti-submarine aircraft. South Korea launched its first 7,000-ton, Aegis-class destroyer in 2008. The Navy has also teamed up with Germany to build 1,800t-class "next-generation" submarines, and plans to purchase anti-submarine aircraft, including helicopters.

In the late 1980s, production of submarines designed by the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) was initiated. Three 150-ton submarines designed by the Howaldswerke Shipbuilding Corporation were in service with the navy in 1990. Howaldswerke also had plans to provide technical assistance for the construction of three Type 209 submarines, about 1,400 tons each. South Korean military planners were interested in using submarines to protect critical shipping lanes from North Korean submarines in wartime.

The navy has implemented projects to secure submarines since the late 1980s, and in June 1993 it commissioned the Changbogoham, a 1,200-ton imported submarine. In April 1994, the navy commissioned and deployed the Ichonham, the first submarine to be built with domestic technology. This was no doubt a dramatic development for underwater operations. The navy planned to secure new-model submarines annually, loaded with modern weapon systems in order to lay the foundation for underwater force capabilities, considered to be relatively inferior to other fields.

By the late 1990s the Naval Amphibious Command operated a small fleet of landing craft to support Marine Corps operations. The Landing Platform, Helicopter (LPH) Dokdo (classified as a transport vessel by the ROK Navy) became operational in July 2007. Construction of the vessel began in October 2002, and it was launched in July 2005. The vessel has a standard displacement of 14,000 tons. It is capable of being equipped with 7 helicopters, 6 tanks, and 7 armored amphibious vehicles, and can hold approximately 700 landing troops, as well as 2 high-speed air-cushion landing crafts (hovercraft). Along with landing operations, the vessel can be used for fleet command and control in maritime operations like surface or antisubmarine combat. The ROK Navy described the commissioning of the Dokdo as another step towards its acquisition of blue-water combat capabilities.

The key to the Korean Navys advancement to the ocean during this period was the policy proposed by President Kim Young-sung in 1997, because at that time it was expected that South Korea and North Korea would hopefully complete the unification in the future, and after the reunification, they would need to establish a national power with South Korea. The Ocean Navy, which is commensurate with the image, would rival that of Japan. However, since the 2000s, the situation in the two Koreas became increasingly unstable. The two Yeonpyeong naval battles occurred in 1999 and 2002 respectively. After North Korea fired nuclear weapons in 2006, the relations between the two Koreas deteriorated significantly. Then the global financial turmoil in 2008 affected the Korean economy. All factors caused the lack of interest in the development of the oceanic navy by President Lee Myung-bak who took office in 2008, which slowed down the development of the Korean navy.

The Korean Navy expedited its steps to build a blue-water Navy to meet the growing security needs. Given that large portions of the nation`s economy depend on overseas trade, its national security has an extended scope to the sea lines of communication (SLOC). The Navy is working on an array of improvement programs to extend its operational coverage. By 2012, Korea plans to deploy three 7,600-ton class Aegis-equipped destroyers under a project code-named KDX-III. The plan is to build three 14,000-ton-class large-deck transport ships by 2011.

Under the KSS-II project, the Navy also planned to build nine 1,800-ton Type 214 submarines equipped with advanced systems including air independent propulsion (AIP) and flank array sonar (FAS). With AIP, they can perform deep-sea operations for two weeks without surfacing. According to the transcript of the national assembly's meeting of 05 April 2006, South Korea's submarine plan was changed in December 2005 from 9 Type 209s, 3 Type 214s, and 12 "SSX" (indigenous 3,000-ton submarines) to 9 Type 209s, 9 Type 214s, and 9 "KX-3" submarines.

The Navy plans to build a naval base on Jeju by 2014, at a cost of 800 billion won ($850 million). The base would dock a mobile naval combat fleet, which is a key asset for securing maritime transportation routes and wielding a sea-going deterrent to various threats. The fleet would consist of 4,200-ton destroyers, 7,000-ton destroyers with the Aegis combat systems, and other submarines and combat support vessels.

In recent years, the ROK Navy carried out a considerable upgrading of its equipment, and by the time the Defense Reform 2020 plan was fully implemented, it is expected to be one of the leading naval forces in Asia. The navy's primary focus is the expansion of operational range and increase of attack capability. By 2020, the navy would have five fleets (1st, 2nd, 3rd fleet, submarine command, and airpower command) with 70 ships of approximately 120,000 tons. Plus the navy would double the number of aircraft, about 100. Destroyers (KDX II/III), submarines KSS II/III), AEGIS-class cruisers, and LPX would be added by 2020.

Naval vessels deployed with the Eastern, Western, and Southern fleets are equipped with modern sonar equipment, depth charges, and torpedoes to counter more effectively North Korea's growing submarine force. Two types of United States-produced and one type of French-produced shipborne surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles were used by the navy on its destroyers, frigates, and fast attack craft.

United States-produced Harpoon surface-to- surface missiles, with a ninety-kilometer range, were deployed on Ulsan-class frigates, and Paegu-class fast attack craft derived from the Ashville-class. As of 1993 missile attack craft included 8 Pae Ku-52, 3 with 4 Standard (boxed) SSM, 5 Pae Ku-52 with 2 x 2 Harpoon SSM, 1 Pae Ku-51 (US Asheville), with 2 x Standard SSM, and 2 Kilurki-71 (Wildcat) with 2 x MM-38 Exocet SSM. Apart from these two vessels, the Kiruki class FACs, also known as Chamsuri class, never carried SSM launchers. Their primary mission was to knock out North Korean FACs with small-calibre guns. Harpoons were also deployed on Gearing-class destroyers, and after these were retired the Harpoon launchers from these ships were tranferred to few Pohang class ships, giving these corvettes more of a reach.

French produced Exocet surface-to-surface missiles, with a seventy kilometer range, were employed on Donghae frigates [not Kilurki-class fast attack craft]. Currently, Exocets are deployed exclusively on Dong Hae class corvettes and Pohang class ships that had been designed for surface-strike missions. Paekgu [Paegu / Pae Ku] class missile fast attack craft [FAC] carried two types of SSMs, one was Harpoon, and the other was the Standard ARM missile, designed to seek out electronic signal and target it. These FACs had been all retired due to engine problems, withdrawing the Standard ARMs from the fleet completely.

The South Korean Navy intended to deploy the land-attack Ch'onnyong on the KSS-II diesel submarines scheduled for procurement in 2007, and on the KDX-II Destroyers, and the KDX-III Destroyers, the first of which was completed in 2008. The Ch'onnyong complements the new Haesong anti-shipping cruise missile unveiled by the South Korean Navy in March 2006.

In 2018, when the ROK's next president enters office, the ROK Navy is going to begin deliberation for 5 new major naval ship programs with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as part of a new defense plan colloquially called 'defense plan for 2030' (much the same way defense reform 2020 in the 2000s resulted in KDX-III, FFX, and KSS-III today). These are, specifically:

  1. Patrol Crovette Xperimental (PCX), a series of 1000-tonnage littoral combat ships for the ROK Navy;
  2. the KDDX destroyer after KDX-III Batch 2;
  3. Korea's new LPH class featuring K-VLS cells, multifunctional AAW/ASW suite, and enhanced aviation capabilities; (2nd Dokdo would already launch in just two and half years from now, so kinda expected)
  4. 4~5 ships of Nampo class MLS-II minelayer;
  5. A successor to the KSS-III submarine class, called SSX, after its final unit is commissioned in 2029. This successor is already dubbed SSX in open source.

SSX is ROK's next submarine program to build another class of large, VLS-equipped submarines. SSX would be built from a new design which, according to multiple sources including Ministry of National Defense and the former Submarine Program Chief Inspector of DAPA for KSS-II (who was the first ever submarine commander of ROK Navy in 1993, when he commanded ROKS Jangbogo), may equip either conventional or nuclear propulsion that would be determined in the future. SSX is intended to eventually replace Type 214 submarines, and equip the ROK Navy exclusively with 4000t type large submarines after the retirement of those subs.

By September 2016 the Navy was planning to build a high speed vessel to more quickly transport reinforcement troops to the northwestern border islands during a North Korean attack. With the Navy's current high speed boat, it takes four to five hours to transport troops from Incheon to Baengnyeong Island. The new vessel was expected to reduce this time by as much as two hours. A senior government official said the plan to build a faster transport vessel is part of preparations to counter any surprise raid on South Korean border islands by North Korea. The official said the military recently finalized a decision to build the vessel. The military plans to deploy the boat beginning in the early 2020s.

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Page last modified: 09-03-2022 19:42:22 ZULU