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South Korean defense sector muscles up with submarine, destroyer projects

Felix Kim

South Korea’s defense industry continues to ramp up domestic production with the November 2020 completion of a 3,000-ton submarine capable of firing ballistic missiles and the planned construction of a 6,000-ton destroyer with a state-of-the-art combat system.

By producing defense assets in South Korea, the Republic of Korea (ROK) military can strengthen its capabilities without relying on costlier imports, while simultaneously bolstering its alliance with the United States, experts said.

“Both the submarine and the destroyers are really critical to the U.S.-ROK relationship,” Dr. Bruce Bennett, a Korea expert at the Rand Corp., told FORUM, referring to the nations’ commitment to a secure Korean Peninsula. ROK defense leadership has long believed that it can acquire more military assets if it builds them in South Korea, he said. “The ROK defense budget is much less than 10% of the U.S. defense budget, so money matters.” 

The Ahn Mu, named in honor of a Korean general, is the second of three 3,000-ton submarines the military plans to develop by 2023 under a U.S. $2.77 billion project launched in 2007. At over 80 meters long and nearly 10 meters wide, the diesel-electric Ahn Mu, pictured, can operate underwater for 20 days with a crew of 50. Six vertical launching tubes can fire ballistic missiles.

The ROK’s fleet of nine 1,200-ton submarines and nine 1,800-ton submarines would “probably have been adequate if they had only been concerned about the North Korean threat,” Bennett said, alluding to nuclear submarines recently fielded by the People’s Republic of China.

The Korea Destroyer Next Generation will be equipped with the Aegis Combat System and outfitted with advanced sensors and missile defense and such stealth characteristics as a quiet electric propulsion system, which is well-suited for anti-submarine warfare, reported ROK’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration. At 6,000 tons, the destroyer sits between the heavier KDX III and lighter KDX II destroyers. Construction is slated to begin in 2024, with Hyundai Heavy Industries Co. Ltd. listed as the “preferred bidder.”

Aegis is a U.S. integrated naval weapons system also employed by the Australian, Norwegian, Spanish and U.S. navies, and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force.

“The Aegis systems are designed to network with each other, and by networking they get better situational awareness, they are more able to do defense, they don’t waste interceptors on the same missiles coming to the South,” Bennett said. “So ideally, if North Korea were to ever attack South Korea, both U.S. and South Korean destroyers would defend together.”

While the new destroyer will be built in South Korea, much of the Aegis armaments and related components will be imported from the U.S., he said. “So in some cases, these advanced acquisitions actually do amount to a greater trade with the U.S.”

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.

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