The Republic of Korea has gone from having a largely coastal navy focused on North Korea to one with growing ocean capabilities and equipped with some of the most modern and well-armed ships in the world. Moreover, far from acquiring them from third countries, over the years it has taken advantage of both the lessons learned and the undeniable capabilities of its civilian naval industry (the largest in the world) and arms industry to design and build not only first-class warships class, but also missiles and systems of all kinds with which to equip them. In a few years, moreover, it is possible that they will have new aircraft carriers thanks to British help, with which, together with the People’s Republic of China and Japan, it would be the only navy in the region capable of deploying considerable air-naval power, with permission. of the US Navy, which continues to play in another league.
Like all the nations that were occupied during World War II, Korea emerged from the conflict badly damaged and very dependent on the victorious Allied, in this case, the USA. As an extra to the above, the Korean peninsula would be the first battlefield of the Cold War, confronting the side supported by the communist bloc in the North, until the intervention of the United States and its allies turned the scales of combat.
Subsequently, China would decide to intervene like the Soviet Union, resulting in the conflict separating the Korean peninsula into two parts, ideologically and militarily opposed. Since then, the conflict on the peninsula has never ceased, with continuous skirmishes, infiltration of operatives and even naval combat in its waters. Thus subjecting South Korea to intense military pressure, which has led it to be one of the nations that invests the most in weapons, as well as having numerous and well-equipped armed forces.
If North Korea alone were not enough of a threat to its neighbor to the South, this country began decades ago a program to develop and build nuclear weapons, in addition to vectors for its launch that have reached a technical success, currently possessing the capacity to carry out a nuclear attack on Seoul. This real and credible threat is not an issue that is taken lightly among the different South Korean governments. In addition, it serves as an incentive not to lower the level of tension in its Armed Forces.
Along these lines, in the last two decades, another potential hostile country has emerged in South Korea in its vicinity, the People’s Republic of China. The growth of the Asian superpower, in all fields, makes it a plausible threat to many of its neighbors, and in the case of South Korea, it would be one of the most threatened nations. This makes Seoul reconsider its defense policy.
Likewise, Korea maintains some disputes of greater or lesser importance with its eastern maritime neighbor, Japan. Inevitably, this creates some friction and lack of unity between the two nations. Although integrated within an international community with clear Western tendencies, these frictions mean that, in certain weapons programs, Tokyo and Seoul do not collaborate as perhaps they should be expected.
As a consequence, South Korea is a nation that requires strong and numerous Armed Forces, along with a powerful Fleet, at least with regional capabilities, to be able to counter surrounding threats. We must include in this equation another crucial fact: South Korea has had for years the largest shipbuilding industry on the planet. A design and construction capacity that revolves around some technological giants such as Daewoo or Hyundai, with which the development and construction of a powerful fleet was only a matter of time and funds.
Even so, Seoul faces a serious problem in terms of its naval defense, derived from complex threats. On the one hand, it must maintain a powerful squadron to face North Korea’s large fleet of coastal submarines and light patrol boats, which requires platforms adapted to this type of fight. This function had been fulfilled in the decades after the Korean War, with light and medium units, coming from North American aid, without the need to develop greater naval capabilities.
Now, the position of South Korea in the world, as an emerging power that it is and with an economy dependent on naval trade, imposes the need to have an oceanic navy, which has made the concept of South Korean naval forces evolve in a very different direction from the initial one. Therefore, it suffers from a serious dichotomy and has to constantly choose between investing resources in a coastal function or in an oceanic function, something that is difficult to reconcile, in addition to the fact that defense budgets, although growing, are always limited. A decision, by the way, that It is not very different from the one that neighboring China had to take in its day…
Seoul’s decision has been to invest in an Oceanic Fleet, but to maintain action capabilities on its immediate coastline, and with strong capabilities in anti-submarine warfare, as North Korea has a large fleet of conventional coastal submarines, capable of creating a complete disruption of South Korean maritime traffic, if necessary.
Republic of Korea Navy: The jump to an ocean fleet
The main change that would make it go from a coastal fleet to an oceanic fleet, would take place thanks to the efforts carried out by Admiral An Byoung-Tae, in 1995, while he held the position of Chief of Naval Operations. His ability to negotiate changes with the then President of the Republic, Kim Young-sam, resulted in a new shipbuilding program geared towards obtaining the first ocean-based programs.
This policy would be reaffirmed in 2001 by President Kim Dae-jung when he stated that the Government would do everything possible to help the Navy achieve its goal of becoming a true Oceanic Fleet. Since then, the subsequent governments of the country have supported this policy, which, as we will see, has given rise to the current emergence of ships and naval weapons programs. Somewhat later, already in 2005, the South Korean Ministry of Defense would present its Defense Reform 2020, in which he requested to have a Navy with 70.000 members and to increase and strengthen the capabilities obtained to date.
In order to make this program a reality, a sustained increase in defense budgets of between 8% and 10% per year over a period of 15 years was also requested. Although it was fulfilled in the first years, later due to the international crisis it was impossible to maintain it. In addition, the 2010 incident of the Cheonan corvette, which was sunk by a torpedo launched by a North Korean submarine, would lead to a new application of Defense guidelines, aimed at strengthening coastal capabilities and anti-submarine warfare. . Relegating a little in time the ocean capacities, which now try once again to boost.
Submarine programmes of the Republic of Korea Navy
South Korea is one of the world’s leading shipbuilding and designer nations, specifically fighting year after year with China for that position. Therefore, a national submarine program is not surprising, nor is it surprising that it has become a success in a relatively short time.
Until the 1980s, South Korea operated coastal and submarine-class submarines. midget, but never with oceanic or maritime interdiction capabilities beyond its immediate area of influence, and very focused on its neighbor to the North. It is around this time that the KSS program is launched, which seeks to provide the Korean Navy with authentic ocean-going submarines with the possibility of their use beyond their immediate area of influence.
The KSS is a program to be developed in three phases, with a goal of 27 operating units with the Fleet in the period 1994 to 2029. Initially, South Korea needed a technological partner that would provide management and design knowledge, as well as construction of submarine units of this size. something logical that we have seen about Taiwan, Italy, Türkiye e even from Spain about the S-80. In the international market at that time, these options were limited to Germany, France and the former USSR.
KSS-I was the first phase of the program, and involved the construction of the first Korean submarines. The successful German Type 209 design was chosen as the base platform, as it was and is the most successful conventional submarine of western design for export, and was available to any customer who wanted it.
Korea acquires it in the form of construction under license in its shipyards, with the first unit built in the German shipyards of HDW. 9 units would make up this class, forming the backbone of the ROK Navy’s submarine force. The units, delivered between 1993 and 2001, will be extensively modernized and maintained in the country, thanks to technology transfer and Korea’s own submarine programs.
They have a length of 56 meters, 1.400 tons of displacement in immersion, 33 crew members and patrol capacity of up to 50 days. Also with a range of 400 nautical miles at 4 knots in immersion. The panoply of weapons they can use from their 8 x 533mm torpedo tubes includes German SUT Mod.2 torpedoes, stowing up to 14 units or 28 naval mines. Later, some or all of the units, depending on the source we consult, have received modernizations that allow them to operate the SSM UGM-84 SubHarpoon missiles from their tubes, and even the local product SSM-700K Haesung III.
Currently they are somewhat technologically outdated units, although they remain in operational condition, and their number makes them a considerable force in the Theater of Operations in question. Also, the ROK Navy has been working on a possible upgrade of the platform with an AIP plant, although the age of the ships and the cost of this upgrade make it somewhat difficult to believe that Korean budgets can support this programme.
The KSS-II would be the next evolution of the program. Continuing with the same technology partner, and in the same technology transfer mode, this time the German HDW Type 214 would be the next submarine to be acquired by Seoul. The 214 would be a German design exclusively for export, combining the benefits of the 209 plus some of the advanced features of the German Navy Type 212A product. The acquisition agreement for this class would consist of a series of 3 and 6 units each, to be built by the two main South Korean shipyards: Daewoo and Hyundai. All units would be delivered between 2007 and 2010.
The ships would have diesel-electric propulsion, as well as a Siemens AIP plant based on PEM technology and hydrogen cells. The length of these submarines is 65 meters, with an immersion displacement of 1.860 tons, reaching 20 knots in immersion. 27 crew members could patrol up to an estimated maximum of 84 days in these submarines.
The autonomy, thanks to the inclusion of the AIP, is estimated at about 1.250 nautical miles at 4 knots in immersion. The arsenal of embarked weaponry can be heavy 533mm torpedoes and tube-launched dive missiles such as the UGM-84 SubHarpoon or the nationally built model SSM-700K Haesung III.
These ships provided Seoul with the strengthening of ocean patrol capacity throughout its area of influence, as well as projecting its naval power in distant areas, by having a remarkable force of ocean submarines. 18 modern, enlisted units provide a more than credible submarine force to any nation, with the accompanying deterrent.
The culmination of the KSS program would come with the third phase, currently underway. In this case, South Korea, based on its powerful shipyards, has developed and built an indigenous submarine platform, known as KSS-III. As we can see, reaching this technological milestone has involved collaborating with a top-tier foreign partner for 30 years, despite the nation’s own impressive naval technology. It is a very important detail that must be taken into account and that should force us to think.
The KSS-III, not being subject to a foreign Design Authority, has been designed to meet purely national objectives and of exclusive Korean interest. The ship is 83.5 meters long and displaces 3.750 tons, being one of the largest conventional submarines in the world. She has a crew of 50 people for a range of 50 days and a range of 10.000 nautical miles. Like its predecessors, it is equipped with diesel-electric propulsion, as well as an AIP plant.
It has 6 533 mm torpedo tubes that allow it to use locally manufactured Tiger Shark torpedoes and the UGM-84. But the main worldwide interest of the KSS-III lies in its combat role. Although cataloged as SSK, it is actually equipped with a national VLS system, which enables it as an SSB or conventional ballistic missile launcher submarine. A reminiscence of the past, specifically of the Soviet Fleet, and the deployment of strategic vectors on submarine platforms.
In the Korean case, its function is not that of an old-style strategic role, given the lack of nuclear weapons in the country. The VLS system enables it to launch both SLBM Hyunmoo-4.4 ballistic missiles and SLCM Hyunmoo-3C cruise missiles. Later we will see them in a little detail, but now it is useful to comment that with these vectors, the role of the KSS-III is that of a high-precision retaliatory weapon, specially designed to attack its neighbor to the North.
The natural objective of both vectors is to be able to reach critical installations of the North Korean nuclear weapons command and control system, from any position surrounding the Korean peninsula, which weakens North Korea’s air defense capabilities. Both vectors use conventional warheads, but with high precision and penetration capacity, since their targets include bunkers, tunnels and fortified areas, which require these special characteristics.
We insist again on the special rarity that this ship has worldwide, an unparalleled design. Her VLS has 6 cells, which, although scarce a priori, gives her a considerable ground attack capacity. South Korea, through its terrestrial ballistic developments, has implemented this idea, positioning itself within a single segment, although at the moment there does not seem to be a great interest worldwide in this type of submarine. However, it cannot be ruled out that this design will evolve towards other aspects in the not too distant future and that it will arouse international interest.
The launch test program of the South Korean SLBM began at the time the first ship of the class was operational, in September 2021. Its development is expected to continue over the next few years as the different units enter service, nine in all.
They currently have one unit already in active service, one in the testing phase prior to entering service -launched in November 2020- and two in different stages of construction, one of them launched in September 2021. As of The third unit has defined some new characteristics that define it as Batch II, or Lot II. On the one hand, the number of silos in the VLS has been increased from 6 to 10, increasing the total length to 89 or 90 meters, and therefore the displacement by another 500 tons.
To strengthen its autonomy, and in a natural evolutionary step only available to very few nations, the KSS-III Batch II should replace its conventional battery banks with Ion-Lithium batteries, developed by another of the South Korean industrial champions, Samsung in this case. . They thus follow the example of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces, which we analyzed back in the day.
Therefore, the South Korean Navy will see itself in the next decade equipped with a very particular submarine and with new capabilities that are unmatched in the region. Although there is controversy regarding the operational usefulness of an SSB, the truth is that the capabilities restricted to conventional weapons do not differ excessively from a VLS of other existing submarine platforms, equipped with SLCM.
Aircraft carrier: a dream for the Republic of Korea Navy
South Korea maintains frictions with China and Japan, both countries with aircraft carrier construction programs underway, even though in the Japanese case it is based on a helicopter carrier. The presence of an aircraft carrier within the Korean Navy would undoubtedly strengthen its defensive capabilities, in addition to providing a force projection capability where necessary.
Although the threat of North Korea is not eliminated or minimized by an aircraft carrier, nor its embarked aircraft, this ship would provide operational flexibility during a military response, if necessary. Currently, air capabilities against North Korea are based on a linear axis of attack, from the bases in its national territory, with the Juche country basing its air defense structure on this axis of threat.
Thus, an aircraft carrier would provide a new axis of threat not defined a priori, and South Korean military planners would find their options increased against their northern rival as well. This would also free Seoul from the need to rely on a US Battle Group presence in the area for retaliatory action.
In another scenario, the capacity of an aircraft carrier would provide Seoul with the power to deploy its naval forces in more remote areas in the face of a conflict with China, providing an international coalition with a new floating base of operations, and a fifth-generation air component. Something not inconsiderable.
The first steps towards equipping aircraft carriers can be dated around the year 2000, when it was decided to build destroyers, amphibious landing ships and ocean-going submarines over the next few decades. That is when the South Korean Navy begins to assess different ideas in this regard, studying different approaches.
The budgetary efforts made to build the fleet we have discussed have delayed the carrier program for years. However, Pyongyang’s new missile tests and the aforementioned regional aircraft carrier race have spurred some consciences in the political class, helping to dust off the project, which, it must be said, was never abandoned by the Navy and which enjoys strongly supported by the shipbuilding industry, for obvious reasons.
The starting signal would be given in December 2020 when the inclusion of the budget items required for the 2020-2024 budget was requested, under the name of CVX project. Expectations during 2021 were high, especially since the planning of the South Korean Navy expected that the Conceptual Design work would be finished as early as 2020, with approval in 2021 and construction work starting in 2022. Thus, they expected to finish construction by 2033. , although that period could still be reduced by one or two more years, depending on the time required for the sea trials.
Regarding these periods mentioned, the estimates of the program anticipate 3 years to complete the Basic Detailed Design of the ship, followed by at least another 7 years of construction. And with 1 or 2 more years of sea and system tests, including the air component.
For the design of this ship in South Korea there are two clear contenders. On the one hand, Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) and on the other Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering (DSME), which together with Samsung Heavy Industries, make up the main shipbuilding triumvirate of the Asian country. It is logical to assume that, especially the first two, they are doing everything possible to access the award of this contract, including their previous designs and forced presentations at arms fairs.
The Navy, in its CVX technical specifications, requests a pure aircraft carrier. That is, not a multipurpose ship in air/amphibious/heliborne missions. The Navy requires a ship designed and built specifically for the operation of embarked fixed-wing aircraft , with all of its interior volumes destined exclusively for the storage and maintenance of said aircraft. At no time is a specific or latent capacity requested, to house amphibious or airborne landing units, as is so fashionable. They require a pure air operations concept, based on the platform’s ability to maintain a high level of takeoffs and landings, and therefore be able to retrofit said aircraft to maintain a constant and intense air capacity in the operations area.
In terms of electronics, it should have a flat-panel aerial radar, as well as a system capable of operating within a BMD shield, with the rest of the Fleet units.
Hyundai would receive a government contract in 2020 for the conceptual design of the CVX. Said design was, initially, 30% higher than the technical specifications requested by the Navy. His proposal is based on a vessel in the range of 40-45.000 tons of displacement, with a length of 270 meters, two islands and an auxiliary flight deck at the stern for specific aerial drone operations. She should also have openings in the hull, below the waterline (moonpool) for UUV deployment and operation.
Its carrier wing should have a theoretical composition of 12 fighters on deck, 8 in the hangar plus a complement of up to 24 multi-role helicopters. The number of air units of all kinds seems a little compared to other units of a similar size, currently operating with other nations.
The HHI design features a Sky-Jump to facilitate STOVL aircraft operations. Although said design would be modular, with the idea that in the future it can be disassembled efficiently, and replaced by a CATOBAR flight deck, being able to equip the ship with an aircraft launch system through catapults.
DSME also presented its conceptual proposal. Its main measurements basically coincide with those of its competitor, returning to a ship in the 45.000-ton range. She also has two islands, although the number of elevators with respect to the HHI proposal is reduced from 4 to 2.
Its proposal maintains that it could operate with 16 fighters and 6 helicopters on deck and accommodate another 12 units in its hangars. They especially emphasize a defense system against drones, which is one of the Navy’s requirements. The main design difference is that the DSME proposal maintains a diaphanous axial flight deck, in the style of the amphibious landing ships of the US Navy, such as the Wasp or the America.
Both proposals from the South Korean shipyards draw from the lessons learned by British industry during the HMS Queen Elizabeth II project. On the one hand, HHI has joined a strategic alliance with the British Babcock International, which was one of the main companies involved in the British aircraft carrier program, and which maintains strong relations with South Korean shipyards in the civil and military fields, equipment supplies.
It is no coincidence that Babcock opened a representative office in Busan at the end of 2021, just as it was no coincidence that in the inaugural deployment of the QEII in Asia-Pacific, one of the exercises was with the South Korean Navy in the Busan area, during three days. The United Kingdom, with a strong strategy now focused on the Pacific , is very interested in providing the CLC program with its main companies and supporters. Apart from the economic return that it would represent for its heavy industry, the Royal Navy would gain a flight deck from which to operate in such a scenario if necessary.
Also, if for any reason the United States is reluctant to support Seoul in this program, London has the know-how to help develop CLC from an operational point of view as well. Something not negligible in this type of programs and contracts.
However, Daewoo has not stood idly by for this contract. During 2021 it has also signed a strategic alliance with another European company with experience in this field. In this case the selected one has been the Italian Fincantieri. The Italian giant is currently immersed in the completion and delivery of the Trieste LHD for the Italian Navy. . The European group also has a lot to contribute to this program, although after Brexit it seems that London’s negotiating capacities in this region of the world are more powerful than those of the EU.
Regarding the air wing, not mentioned in the paragraphs above, it is assumed that it could only be based on the Lockheed Martin F-35B . In the West today, choosing a carrier aircraft with STOVL capabilities forces the choice of the American product, as there is no other alternative. In addition, the choice of such carrier-based fighter has the advantage of offering a fifth generation aircraft, something that no other country can offer.
Interoperability with other fleets is increased by this choice. On the one hand, nations such as Japan, the United Kingdom or the United States will be able to operate in the CVX while they will be able to operate from the other ships, something that makes the standardization of air and naval operations increase the availability of military units. It is a very considerable advantage, on such a large stage and with a lack of available flight decks. On the other hand, the selection of a ship with STOVL characteristics directly cancels the ability to embark primary function aircraft, such as specialized AEW, specifically speaking of the E-2D, although it could be considered that the AEW capacity was based on helicopters.
So far Seoul has submitted an order request for 20 units of F-35B still unconfirmed, so there is neither a fixed price nor a delivery schedule.
Now, not everything works as expected in the South Korean Navy’s aircraft carrier program. The main problems arose from the second half of 2021. We must understand that it is a project in the making, and that currently, there is no government confirmation about the construction of the ship. Just a contract for the basic design of it, so it may never see the light of day if the needs of the South Korean Navy change.
For 2022, the DAPA (Defense Acquisition Administration) requested a budget of about 9 million dollars for the CVX destined for the planning, technical support, research and study of the Embarked Wing. The General Assembly of South Korea would reduce this proposal and would allocate a meager $400,000 for that year, which was barely used to finance the general administration of the project, the search for information and travel.
The representatives of the current Government in the Assembly show clear reluctance towards the CLC project in general. One of the main arguments for not having allocated the sums requested by the South Korean Navy is that a cost study of the operational life of the ship has not yet been presented and that there is not even a unanimous consensus about its need for the national defense.
As is obvious in politics, the opposition demands that urgent funds be allocated to the program, as failure to do so would profoundly damage South Korea’s national defense capabilities. From all this we can deduce that there is still some time before a firm political decision is finally taken.
What is certain is that the lack of funds for 2022 has put the CVX in check, and will probably prevent a decision regarding the ship to be built, between HHI or DSME, and the final assignment of the construction contract. But the situation in South Korea, with Japan and China investing heavily in this field, and with internal pressures from their own industry, as well as from public opinion, lead us to conclude that sooner rather than later the program will be approved. and we will see another aircraft carrier operational in Southeast Asia, much to Beijing’s dismay.
The ROK Navy’s surface fleet is destroyer-based, unlike many other navies, especially European ones. While some countries decided to base their surface component on lighter ships, such as frigates, South Korea would invest its future in larger ships with greater possibilities, while never abandoning the design and acquisition of new frigates. .
When the political decision is made to equip the country with a fleet of oceanic capabilities, it is also decided to renew the main surface units, coming from American aid. They were destroyers designed in the 50s and 60s of the last century and would be replaced by much more modern ones of national design. It is in these years when the KDX program begins, which continues to the present day, and which will continue in the coming years.
Early designs were based on the then brand new Arleigh Burke class, from which the South Koreans took good notions of hull design, though greatly varying the internal layout, according to their own criteria. The South Korean naval industry would greatly benefit from the KDX program by focusing its large industrial capacities on this market niche, both for its own Navy and for export.
The KDX-I, known as the Gwanggaeto the Great class, would be the first series of the program. Initially 12 units were proposed, only 3 would be built by Daewoo, which would suffer delays in the design and construction of the ships, as well as problems in budget allocation. All units would be delivered between 1998 and 2000.
The ships would focus on an ASW capability, while maintaining medium and low ASuW and AAW capabilities. They would be equipped with two ASW Super Lynx helicopters, as well as 8 Harpoon missiles and a Mk48 Mod 2 VLS to operate with RIM-7P Sea Sparrow SAMs, all as main armaments. It would also have a 127 mm artillery mount, 2 CIWS and two triple ASW Mk46 torpedo mounts.
The length would be 135.5 meters giving 3,900 tons of displacement with 30 knots of speed. They are considered very successful platforms, and they have served as the basis for the following design evolutions, maintaining beautiful lines and more than enough expansion capabilities to accommodate the systems to be installed both in these and in the ships of the classes developed from them.
At the end of the 2010s, the modernization of this class of ships would be decided, seeking to keep them operational for another 10 to 15 years. All units were to be delivered to the Republic of Korea Navy by December 2021, with only 2 of them having been delivered so far. The modernization has focused on improving ASW combat capabilities with the installation of a new towed sonar, a new combat management system, and generally improving the ship’s sensors.
This platform would achieve one of the first export successes by the South Korean military naval industry, managing to sell to Thailand a highly redesigned and polished sub-variant of this class, classified as a frigate, which was ordered in 2013 and delivered in 2019. of the FFG 471 HTMS Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The next class of Korean destroyers would seek a nationalization of the design, as well as break away from current designs in search of ships with stealth characteristics and greater capabilities in anti-air warfare. The KDX-II (South Korean designation Chungmugong Yi Sun-sin class) would be designed around an improved hull by the German IABG seeking to reduce the ship’s infrared signature and lower RCS through the design of inclined bulkheads and hull. The US Navy would largely support this project materially, and the original ships would incorporate a large amount of equipment from US and European suppliers.
The cancellation of the 9 units of the KDX-I would lead to the approval of the new destroyer, creating the new program as the banner of the ship nationalization policy. The South Korean shipbuilding industry and all its auxiliary industries would form a great lobby with the idea of increasing orders to the national industry. Something logical in a country with the industrial fabric of South Korea, but in some aspects of the defense industry it was relegated to the background. This program would make a significant number of sub-programs and companies take off thanks to political support.
The KDX-II would add 6 units, all of them commissioned between 2003 and 2008, being the construction shared between the Daewoo and Hyundai shipyards.
The class would displace 6,500 tons with a length of 150 meters and a beam of 14.7 meters. The crew would grow with respect to the KDX-I from 285 to 300 crew. In terms of armament, the ships would have a 127 mm naval artillery piece, a CIWS based on a RAM launcher, 8 national SS-700K Haesung-III missiles to replace the Harpoons, VLS Mark 41 for SAM SM- 2 Block IIIA and two triple launchers for 324 mm ASW torpedoes.
Within the nationalization of the project, from the fourth unit, they would also begin to integrate the Korean VLS system, called K-VLS. This is one of the cornerstones in South Korea’s defense industrial policy, becoming independent from US systems, and beginning to equip its ships with national VLSs and indigenous vectors. Specifically, it would allow them to operate the Hyunmoo III cruise missile and the K-ASROC anti-submarine vector. Overall, the KDX-IIs boast far superior anti-aircraft defense capabilities over their predecessors, qualifying them as primary ships while maintaining powerful ASW and ASuW capabilities.
Despite attempts at nationalization, most of the ship’s main sensors and systems are still of Western origin, something Seoul will continue to push to change in future classes.
The KDX-II is not a direct development of the KDX-I or the DDG-51, as it appears in certain publications or yearbooks. After the cancellation of the KDX-I units, South Korea begins the study and development of different destroyers in parallel. One of them would be the KDX-II as a fast delivery platform with powerful equipment, while working on a new design, above 7.000 tons of displacement.
The possibility of integrating the AEGIS system in this platform would also be studied in depth, but the physical and volumetric requirements of the AEGIS were excessive for the 6.500-ton platform, discarding the option and searching for another more suitable for said mission. Likewise, a vain attempt would be made to export to India, which, con sus múltiples programas navales, I get to feel interest in these ships, but that would not materialize in anything.
The KDX-IIs have become the best available platforms for the ROK Navy in terms of cost and capabilities. Since its entry into service, one of them has been regularly deployed twice a year to the Somali coast, within the Somalian Sea Escort Task Group , having acquired extensive experience in deployments.
In February 2021, it is agreed to invest in the modernization of the KDX-II after having finished the corresponding one of the KDX-I, thus avoiding unnecessary financial stress. The program, known as PIP or Performance Improvement Project, is not clearly defined, nor are the changes publicly announced, although a total investment of the combat systems, as well as the sensors of the ships, is assumed, trying to take the fleet towards a national standard.
Existen rumores acerca de este programa, entre los cuales también a new traversable sonar could be included and improvements in its ASW systems, seeking to increase the capabilities of said combat segment. What has been publicly announced by the government is that the PIP will extend between 2022 and 2031, and will have an initial investment of 4.200 million dollars, for the 6 ships of the class.
The aforementioned development of a destroyer above 7,000 tons was imposed by said specification for the integration of AEGIS in the platform. Said design would evolve to the current KDX-III, destroyers with a displacement close to 11,000 tons and which, according to classic parameters, would be classified as cruisers rather than destroyers.
The KDX-III is the current destroyer under construction for the Republic of Korea Navy. It is 166 meters long and 21 meters wide and will be powered by a COGAG system based on four General Electric LM-2500 gas turbines, which allows a speed of over 30 knots. Your crew is 300 souls.
There are currently 3 units active with the Fleet, commissioned between 2.008 and 2.012, the construction having been divided between DSME and HHI. And another 6 are planned, to be built in two different Batches, also hoping that the construction will be divided between both shipyards. These new units will be equipped with the AEGIS Baseline 9 version that allows you to access BMD capabilities and operate SM-6 SAM missiles, although they have not yet been requested for purchase.
The integration of the AN/SPY-1D radar led to the configuration of a huge ship that would allow stability in navigation and space for equipment. This increase in displacement led to the inclusion of different weapons systems on the ships, making them the most heavily armed ships in the world if we exclude the BCGN Kirov, of Soviet design and construction.
The embarked armament available on the ships is the following; Mk41 VLS forward with 48 cells, Mk41 VLS aft with 32 cells, capable of handling the main SM-2 Block IIIB/IV SAM missile, K-VLS with 48 cells for K-ASROC and SLCM Hyunmoo III, 2 triple launchers for ASW torpedoes, 4 quad launchers for 16 SSM-700K Haeseong missiles, 2 CIWS one of them a Goalkeeper and the other a RAM Block 1 and a 127 mm naval artillery piece. In addition, for ASW it embarks 2 Super Lynx or SH-60 Sea Hawk helicopters.
As we can see, just to operate with the Mk41 VLS it already has 80 cells, a number greater than the DDG51 themselves or the Ticonderoga cruisers, in addition to all the weapons outside of said systems. That is why the KDX-III currently represents the core of the Republic of Korea Navy’s attack capability in all areas of naval warfare, while providing a very powerful attack and defense capability for any international group operating with them in the Pacific area.
As we have mentioned, the Batch II of this class is currently under construction. In May 2019, the complete construction of the three units would be approved, for a total amount of 3.3 billion dollars. Subsequently, in October 2021, the keel of the first unit would be laid, awarded to HHI, with a delivery date of 2024. Subsequently, in November of the same year, the second unit would be assigned to the same builder, to be delivered in 2026 and it would be assign the third unit, which is due to be delivered to the Republic of Korea Navy in 2028.
These vessels have grown even more in size, reaching 170 meters in length and increasing their displacement accordingly. There is an open controversy as to whether these Batch IIs will carry the Mk41s or become exclusively equipped with the K-VLSs and therefore replace the SAM vector of the SM family with the local K-SAAMs. It does not seem that this will be possible in the first units, since it would imply that AEGIS Baseline 9 would have to be modified to operate with vectors external to the system, something that in the short term does not seem feasible in the system architecture and that would also affect to its BMD capabilities, which is, after all, one of the great advantages of the set. What is clear is that these ships will follow the path of their predecessors, becoming heavily armed platforms.
The next class of destroyers has been in the design phase for years, also with strong input from the South Korean shipping industry. This class would be the KDX-IV, although it is better known as KDDX. The basic premise of the entire project is to be able to design, build and integrate a ship with complete national technology and with capacities similar to those currently obtained thanks to components imported from allied countries. The project is complex and deep, and as is common in South Korean programs, its specifications have not yet been publicly defined in detail.
The platform will be designed based on new stealth concepts, seeking to reduce all the ship’s signatures as much as possible. It is also sought to economize on the operation and maintenance of these vessels with respect to the costs established in the KDX-III, although the general characteristics bring them closer to those of the KDX-II.
The two main shipyards have submitted proposals for such vessels, although there is not yet an award to either of them. They would be platforms with lengths between 156 and 158 meters and with a beam between 18 and 19 meters. Its displacement would vary between 6.500 and 8.000 tons. The HHI proposal contemplates an inverted bow, like the DDG 1000 Zumwalt and a main armament based on 8 SSM-700K, K-VLS forward with 48 cells and another system aft with 16 cells, as well as a new CIWS of local development of which two units would be installed, a piece of 127 mm and capacity to operate 1 ASW helicopter. DSME’s proposal is basically similar but increasing the SSM-700K to 16 units and returning to a conventional bow design.
The VLS of the resulting ship would now be exclusively K-VLS that would allow it to operate with the complete panoply of nationally developed weapons: SLCM Hyunmoo-3C and the K-SAAM, which is the configuration that allows each cell of the K-VLS to carry 4 L-SAM, increasing the stowage capacity and operation of SAM missiles per ship.
A remarkable aspect that we cannot miss refers to the development of the L-SAM, which has been possible thanks to the business collaboration with the Russian design office Almaz-Antey, applying technology developed for the SAM S-300/400 systems . The South Korean naval-military industry has strong business ties with the Russian industry and, although they are quite discreet, the collaboration is important for both sides.
Recent events stemming from the invasion of Ukraine may have an impact on these collaborations, although the basic product has already been developed and is under construction in South Korea. Much harsher will be the impact on South Korea’s collaboration with Russia’s Far Eastern gas industry and Russia’s shipbuilding industry , which may be seen close to collapse if Seoul complies with the international community’s proposed sanctions against Russia.
The general objectives, as we have already seen is the national policy, go through trying to install all possible weapons and sensors of national origin, as well as trying to implement all the new technologies available, on a COTS basis, for a greater cost reduction. of exploitation, as well as speed and savings in repairs and spare parts during the operational life of the ship. The crew of the KDDX is expected to be in a range of 180 to 200 men, this reduction in troops being one of the main vectors in the face of reducing the operating costs of these ships.
DSME maintains a series of contracts awarded, related to the KDDX, such as those for Conceptual Design, from 2013 or hydrodynamics of the hull, from 2016. By the second half of 2023 it is expected that the Basic Design will be completed, for a year later to have detailed engineering is ready and construction of the 1st unit of the series begins.
In the aspect of electronics, systems and missiles, the companies Hanhwa Defense and LIG Nex 1 are the national champions in charge of maintaining the programs, especially those of R&D oriented to their sectors. They will have an integrated mast with all new sensors and radars.
South Korea is expected to approve the construction of at least 6 units of this new design, for a unit cost of more than 1.000 million dollars, estimating the cost of the prototype in the range of 1.600 million.
Not surprisingly, the Republic of Korea Navy also maintains an incredible frigate design and construction program. In fact, they are about to move up a category and position themselves in a good position to start becoming an exporting nation, in the same segment as our Navantia.
South Korea maintained a group of frigates and corvettes, as well as littoral and anti-submarine warfare ships, to deal with the threat from its northern neighbor. They were primarily based, and continue to be based while being decommissioned, on Pohang-class corvettes and Ulsan-class frigates.
The Ulsan class were light frigates, which at the time were the greatest exponent of military naval construction in the country. 9 units, with a length of 103 meters and a displacement of 2.200 tons, would be built between various shipyards, between 1981 and 1992. Their main armament consisted of 2 pieces of 76 mm, two quadruple Harpoon launchers, 2 triple Mark-46 torpedo mounts ASW and Mark-9 depth charge launchers, emphasizing their ASW mission.
Its mission consisted of the protection of the SLOC (Maritime Lines of Communication) close to the Korean peninsula, as well as the protection against submarines, fleet units and merchant ships. Their air defense capabilities were very limited and they were expected to operate under the protective umbrella of ground-based aviation.
So far, 5 units have already been decommissioned, with the remaining ones preparing to take that step, as the newly minted frigates are being delivered to the Republic of Korea Navy.
Consequently, South Korea would initiate several programs for the replacement of the Ulsan frigates. Due to the successive economic crises suffered since the beginning of these programs, they mutated into the current FFX, which has in turn been subdivided into a series of different classes of frigates, implementing improvements in a staggered manner and equipping the Fleet with strong capabilities. , and with a promising future in this segment.
The FFX are conceived as modern frigates destined to replace the functions in the Ulsan Fleet and the corvettes in their escort and ASW roles. Initially, the serial construction of 24 units with improved capabilities is proposed, to replace the 40 platforms in service with South Korea, in said roles.
Between 2013 and 2016, 6 Inchon-class frigates were built at the STX and HHI shipyards. This package of ships is known as FFX Batch I. The units are light frigates with a displacement of 3.300 tons, 114 meters long and 14 meters wide. They have a crew of 140 souls. Their main drawback, given their eminent ASW role, is the presence of only one hull sonar, although they are capable of operating ASW helicopters such as the Super Lynx or AW159.
Its armament consists of a 127 mm Mark 45 mod 4 naval gun, 1 Phalanx CIWS, two triple Blue Shark ASW torpedo mounts, 1 RAM Block 1 based CIWS operating RIM-116 missiles capable of 21 SAM missiles, 8 SSM -700K and have the ability to attack the ground, through 8 Haeryong missiles.
South Korea, with its powerful industrial lobby, was able to achieve the export of two of these frigates – or at least ships based on their design – to the Philippines. They were ordered in 2016 and delivered, with delays due to the COVID pandemic, in 2020 and 2021, setting a powerful precedent in the region for future exports.
The FFX Batch II, known as the Daegu-class FFG, is a series currently under construction, with 8 approved units in total. 2 of them have already entered service with the South Korean Navy, in 2018 and 2021 respectively, while the other six remaining units have been launched, the last unit having been launched in March 2022.
The Daegu grow in length to 122 meters, maintaining the same width, and move to a displacement of 3.600 tons. They maintain the same 140-man crew. However, the best improvements come from the increase in the offensive potential of the platforms, as new systems have been installed that make them completely different from their predecessors.
The Batch II is equipped with the everlasting 127mm cannon, CIWS Phalanx, triple Blue Shark torpedo mounts and its battery of 8 SSM-700K anti-ship missiles. So far the standardization with its predecessors is maintained. A 16-cell K-VLS system is included in these vessels, thus enabling them to use an extensive new arsenal of national design. They can operate K-SAAMs in a 4-missile-per-cell configuration, Haeryong ground-attack TLAMs, and K-ASROC ASWs. We therefore see that the air defense and ASW capabilities have been greatly enhanced, while introducing for the South Korean Navy a limited but effective ground attack capability from frigates and strengthening the ASW aspect with the K- ASROC.
In this last segment, the Daegu incorporate a towed sonar, which gives the platform greater anti-submarine fighting capacity, and as always, they are enabled to operate with ASW helicopters.
Currently, the Republic of Korea Navy is working on FFX Batch III. HHI developed in recent years, under contract with the Ministry of Defense, the Basic Engineering of these ships, as well as the Detail and Construction Engineering. It was expected, and even announced, that this same shipyard would proceed with the construction of the top series. However, in January 2022, the construction of the first of a series of 6 planned units would be awarded to a medium-sized shipyard, Samkang M&T, which had previously built patrol boats for the South Korean Navy. The planning foresees that the ship enters service in 2026.
They will be vessels of 129 meters in length with a beam of 15, 3,500 tons, capable of more than 30 knots and crewing 120 people. Focused on their ASW mission, they will have hybrid propulsion, which will allow them to operate with electric motors in stalking mode, being extremely silent platforms in the face of enemy submarines.
They will have an integrated mast, developed by Hanwha, and likely to become a ROK Navy standard as well. Said mast will have the panels for an AESA system that will allow a 360º detection and tracking arc for aerial targets.
The Batch III will focus on improving the AAW aspect, the general idea being that of mini-AEGIS frigates. These ships are intended to be equipped with the new SAM missiles under development, Naval L-SAM, and their combat management system is expected to have national BMD capabilities. They will be equipped with K-VLS, and while they enter service the L-SAMs will operate in the K-SAAM configuration.
These frigates enter a very competitive market segment, especially for Navantia, since the South Korean system is expected to be free of external components, with which the sale and export of these ships would not require foreign approvals. For all these reasons, everything related to this program must be followed with special attention.
To conclude, we must mention that the Republic of Korea Navy has the Batch IV program underway, of which there is hardly any information, beyond the general one that there will be another 6 units, totaling 26 frigates for the FFX program as a whole. . They will have an estimated displacement between 4.500 and 5.000 tons and will surely make intensive use of the K-VLS and the entire panoply of national weapons that said system makes available to these ships.
South Korea has an important amphibious operations corps, maintaining a marine infantry with 30,000 troops organized into 2 divisions and two independent brigades. The infantry has been heavily invested in materiel and training, as well as mission assignments, within the country’s defense structure.
The Republic of Korea Navy deploys eight LST ships of two different classes that enable it to carry out amphibious operations. Similarly, they have two ships designated LPH that increase their force projection capabilities.
In particular, the Dokdo-class LPHs are ships that are born from the concept of the American design office Gibbs de SCS, from which our Prince of Asturias would also start. The Dokdos were built in two different series for budgetary reasons. On the one hand, the Dokdo delivered to the Navy in 2007, with a length of 199 meters and a displacement of 19.500 tons, is a platform with strategic capabilities, specially designed for amphibious operations beyond the horizon.
It can embark more than 700 Marines, 10 MBTs, 10 heavy trucks, 7 AAVs, 3 field artillery pieces, and 2 LCACs, which are its landing vectors. LCACs are heavy hovercraft that can operate at more than 40 knots, and therefore enable the landing ship to be able to operate in amphibious operations, beyond the line of sight of the horizon, from the selected point on the coast.
The South Korean LCAC are of Soviet/Russian origin of the Lebed class, with which we can see another collaboration between the two countries, but which brings benefits to both, providing military capabilities in exchange for foreign currency.
Likewise, the Dokdo was designed to be able to operate with all available helicopters, and was also later modified to accept the V-22 Osprey and Harriers. As we have mentioned before, it is assumed that they will be modified – if they have not already been – to become an operations platform for the F-35, following the Japanese path and serving as a support platform for the CVX.
On the other hand, Marado, the second unit delivered to the Fleet in 2021, was a project delayed due to budgetary and political issues. Instead of equipping it with the Dodko Goalkeepers, it opted for the Phalanx CIWS and incorporating a K-VLS battery in the purest Soviet design style. As we already know, this enables you in some new trading capabilities.
Finally, it should be noted that the costs of each ship are estimated at between 300 and 400 million dollars. They currently form the core of the Republic of Korea Navy and serve as command ships in the groupings.
By virtue of the foregoing, and of course, the Republic of Korea Navy has a powerful logistics ship capacity to maintain its fleet in operations on the high seas, but the perennial dichotomy of its strategic needs must be taken into account . On the one hand, by Western standards the South Korean Navy lacks sufficient infrastructure to deploy its Fleet for a long period of time in distant waters. On the other hand, its main concern lies with its neighbor to the North, so it is to be expected that as the increase in oceanic units in the Fleet continues, the logistics and support units will also grow in that proportion.
For mine warfare, which in its closest aspect is a real threat from North Korea, it maintains a constant program of new units. It is currently preparing 11 ships with more than enough capabilities and 3 new units are under construction, while its neighbor to the North has one of the largest naval mine arsenals in the world. It is to be hoped that South Korea would receive support from friendly and close nations in the event of a large number deployment of such weapons.
More precisely, it has 4 logistical support ships for the AOE Fleet, although there is also an ongoing program for its modernization. In addition, we must not lose sight of the fact that in this segment of military vessels, Korean shipyards built the last class of supply ships for the Royal Navy, the Tide class, and the lesson learned will be seen in the following units.
Likewise, it enlists 3 salvage and rescue vessels, one of them being especially for supporting submarine operations, which, as we have seen, has a large submarine fleet. It is also to be hoped that in the coming years a second unit will be approved to be able to cover both Korean coasts with these high-reaction vessels.
Last but not least, the Republic of Korea Navy has 2 AGS acoustic intelligence vessels in operation, focused on gathering information about the surrounding seas and obviously detecting and tracking the numerous South Korean units North, and Chinese and Russian units in the region. These ships, always reviled by the general public, have a great strategic value for any nation; something that would multiply in case of conflict.
Nuclear Weaponry and the AUKUS in South Korea
South Korea, for national, political, economic and military reasons, is one of the few nations that strongly supports the development of nuclear weapons. In fact, some of the latest polls conducted in the country show that more than half of the population supports the nation equipping itself with nuclear weapons.
It is a unique case worldwide, since public opinion feels the need to respond on equal terms to the threats posed by North Korea and China, and to a lesser extent, even Japan. Consequently, with such a clear position and support from public opinion, the Government does not require a strong campaign. The only thing that could stop this development would be international treaties, given that the technology is within their reach and the costs -although large- could be assumed over the years.
The first step in this direction would be to equip its Armed Forces with nuclear platforms. In our specific case, it would mean equipping them with nuclear-powered naval units and, in particular, submarines, following the example of Australia after the signing of AUKUS . For decades this possibility was rumored and even the approach to nations like France that could help in this technological field for a faster and more efficient development of the reactor and the ship itself.
Although a priori it might seem that a nuclear-powered submarine is not the most suitable for the South Korean scenario of operations, the development of land-attack vectors by the Fleet paves the way for a true SSBN that could execute a deterrence mission. continues in favor of Seoul. Even a battery of missiles with conventional warheads would greatly enhance the ground attack capabilities of the South Korean navy against its enemies.
In relation to the above, the Australian decision to equip itself with nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN) raises much of the international reluctance towards a South Korea equipped with nuclear-powered ships. Along with French support for the Brazilian program, the path seems increasingly clear, since it is one of the countries that has most clearly expressed its desire in this regard.
The confluence of factors in this case is very favorable to the interests of South Korea. If Washington were to refuse or be reluctant to provide support for South Korea’s nuclear program, Paris might be keen to make amends for the Australian disaster by filling that gap in South Korea. In the same way, France has no special obstacles when it comes to helping this nation in said program, benefiting from the current know-how obtained from the Brazilian. It goes without saying that the South Korean industry would be more than willing to support the program, due to the juicy contracts that will surely hit the market.
By virtue of the above, the KSS-III is the platform on which South Korea could evolve into an SS(G)BN. Although this program would not be exactly fast, the next decade will be very interesting in the Korean peninsula.
Naval Aviation may be the smallest branch of the Republic of Korea Navy, however, it has the capabilities required in its most immediate setting, without deployment beyond its regional theater of operations.
The fixed-wing and ground-based component is equipped with 16 units of P-3C/P-3CK Orions, the eternal maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft. As always, focused on protecting its maritime lines of communication and against the two large submarine fleets that North Korea and China maintain.
Due to the permanent decline of the P-3 in all the Navies of the world in the coming years, South Korea ordered in 2019 six units of its more capable successor, the P-8A Poseidon. Program that is running, but whose deliveries have not yet been executed. However, it is estimated that this number of units should grow in the coming years to reach at least a dozen.
As for the fleet of helicopters operated, they have 46 helicopters, with the Super Lynx/Lynx and the Augusta Westland 159 as the anti-submarine vectors on board the ships, and the UH-60 Black Hawk as support and transport helicopters. To maintain parity between the modern units of its fleet and its embarked component, Korea has ordered the purchase of 12 MH-60 Sea Hawks in the ASW role, thus reinforcing capabilities in that segment.
We have briefly seen the naval potential of the Navy of the Republic of Korea, which has more than 70,000 men, 150 ships and, in addition, almost 30,000 marines in its service. Unlike many nations, whose tight defense budgets only allow future class-by-class programs, South Korea, with a very powerful budget and social and government support, invests until a new economic crisis arises in developing new classes of ships in all segments.
Obviously, this seemingly runaway investment is backed by a top-tier industry, both naval and defense, as well as electronics and heavy, that benefit from the new programs. There is therefore a national project behind the defense effort, something that others of us lack. Furthermore, investment in defense is seen as life insurance against nuclear threats from North Korea. This is a factor that we can never ignore when we think about South Korea.
In the case of the navy, the leap has been both quantitative and qualitative so that at present and in the coming years, it will have an ocean fleet with more than remarkable capabilities from any point of view. By equipping a good part of the units with ground attack capacity, on the one hand, Seoul feels in a safer position against an attack by North Korea, and on the other hand, it creates a fairly credible bloc in the face of the threat. China.
The final conclusions, as well as a series of additional considerations, will be presented in the next and last article related to this region of the world.
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