With the world’s attention focused on a potential confrontation between China and Japan in the East China Sea, a third player has built what may be the most powerful ship-for-ship fleet in Northeast Asia. Over the past fifteen years, the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) has expanded dramatically, acquiring a substantial fleet of modern, powerful warships. While the ROKN continues to prepare for the contingency of conflict with North Korea, it has become a force capable of significant foreign deployment. If Seoul maintains its commitment to the Navy, the ROKN could become one of the world’s premier middle power navies.
Since 1953, North Korea has posed the central strategic problem for the ROKN. The sinking of the Cheonan and the DPRK’s bombardment of offshore islands in 2010 served as harsh reminders of the maritime aspects of the North Korea dilemma. New designs (especially frigates) suggest a renewed emphasis on anti-submarine warfare. However, many of the capabilities of South Korea’s new warships seem geared towards global contingencies, rather than being designed to meet specific North Korean threats.
The Aegis equipped Sejong the Great (KD-III) class destroyers, for example, compare favorably with American, Japanese, and Chinese designs, carrying more missiles in VLS cells than their foreign counterparts. Although quite capable of engaging North Korea in a strike, air defense, or missile defense capacity, the three ships of the class represent a much more substantial commitment to surface warfare than the threat of the DPRK demands.
Similary, the Dokdo class amphibious warships suggest a maritime focus extending well beyond the Korean Peninsula. Like many amphibious warships, the 18,000 ton Dokdo strongly resembles a small aircraft carrier. As British and French operations in Libya last year demonstrated, amphibious warships can become strike vessels through the addition of attack helicopters. Although South Korea does not currently participate in the F-35B project, the prospect of flying the STOVL fifth generation fighter from Dokdo (or potentially from Dokdo’s successors) undoubtedly appeals to some South Korean defense planners. However, even if the tremendous expense of acquiring and operating such fighters proves daunting, the light carriers could someday employ Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) optimized for strike and reconnaissance roles. In any case, the Dokdos give South Korea a plausible expeditionary capability.
South Korea’s robust shipbuilding industry (the world’s largest) helps support and underwrite the ROKN’s expansion and modernization. Four Dokdos and six KD-IIIs are planned, although actual construction may not match these numbers. If it does, however, this would represent one of the most potent naval warfare squadrons in the world, potentially capable of conducting many different missions in the region. The KD-IIIs and Dokdos are supported by a force of nine modern large frigates (designated destroyers), all displacing from 3500-6000 tons and specialized for surface and sub-surface warfare. Another fifteen 3000 ton frigates are in the ROKN’s plans.
Much like the PLAN, the ROKN has taken advantage of every opportunity to develop experience with distant, long-term deployments. South Korea is a regular participant at RIMPAC, as well as other significant multilateral exercises. Also like the PLAN and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), the ROKN has maintained a continuous presence in support of CTF 151’s anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia.
All of this suggests that the ROKN is built for exigencies well beyond war on the Peninsula. Naval vessels of the sort operated by South Korea (small carriers and the modern-day equivalent of battleships) carry a high prestige value. This signals to both domestic and international audiences that Seoul is to be taken seriously on the international stage. However, the fleet also represents a hedge against the possibility that South Korean relations with its larger neighbors may deteriorate. The capabilities the ROKN is currently pursuing could operate abroad in expeditionary and humanitarian relief operations, or could help protect South Korea’s maritime lifelines. In any case, the tendency to focus exclusively on the navies of China and Japan misses out on one of the most important new players in the Northeast Asian maritime scene.