South Korea could get two nuclear attack submarines
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While North Korea claimed last week that it had managed to launch a Pukguksong 3 sea-ground ballistic missile from a submarine (the Pentagon denies this), Seoul plans to make a significant effort to strengthen its submarine warfare capabilities.
Currently, the South Korean Navy has 18 diesel-electric submarines manufactured under license by Hyundai Heavy Industries and Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering. In 2018, the ROKS Dosan Ahn Changho was launched and is scheduled to enter service in 2020. It is the seed of a new class of submarines, with twice as much tonnage than those previously implemented by the South Korean Navy. In total, and for the moment, four copies must be built.
The experience acquired during the licensed construction of the submarines “Chang Bogo” and “Sohn Wonyil” has allowed the development of Dosan Ahn Changho by the local industry. The latter should carry at least ten “Chonryong” cruise missiles, which will mark a major capability evolution for the South Korean Navy.
However, Seoul plans to go even further. On 10 October, the South Korean Navy said it had just set up a “working group” to study the modalities for acquiring at least two nuclear-powered submarines.
“With the long-term prospect of having nuclear-powered submarines, we have set up our own task force,” said a South Korean military official in a report to parliamentarians quoted by the Yonhap agency.
The idea is to reinforce the South Korean deterrence against Pyongyang, which has the nuclear weapon and vectors to implement it.
“A nuclear-powered submarine is considered to be the most effective means of detecting and destroying North Korean submarines armed with strategic ballistic sea-ground missiles because it is capable of conducting operations underwater for a period of time longer,” said Admiral Sim Seung-seob, the chief of South Korean naval operations. “We recognize the utility and necessity of a nuclear-powered submarine, as it is a useful deterrent to react simultaneously to North Korea and neighboring countries,” he added.
However, this is not the first time that such an eventuality has been mentioned. This was indeed the case in 2003 as part of a clandestine project called “Initiative 362.” But it was canceled a year later, after leaks in the press, while quite extensive design work had been done.
Then, in 2017, the South Korean Ministry of Defense commissioned the Korea Defense Network to conduct a feasibility study on the autonomous development of a nuclear attack submarine.
It remains to be seen whether the South Korean industry has the capacity to design a nuclear-powered submarine. It could be that it resumes the plans of Dosan Ahn Changho by integrating a nuclear reactor.
“The design and construction of a nuclear-powered submarine is no problem for South Korean shipbuilders, but for the integration of weapons and other equipment into the submarine platform, we may need help from France or others,” said Moo Keun-sik, a South Korean navy officer who had worked on the initiative 362.