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South Korea's Blue-water Ambitions
Image Credit: Uniphoto Press

South Korea's Blue-water Ambitions

 
 

Following is the second in our series on Understanding Asia-Pacific Sea Power. In this installment we look at South Korea's growing naval prowess and its development of a blue-water navy.

 

Back in 2002, South Korea’s navy launched the Chungmugong Yi Sun-Shin to great fanfare. Not only was the 4,500-ton KDX-2 destroyer the largest and most technologically advanced naval combat vessel in Korean history—it was also a symbolic first step in the country’s pursuit of a blue-water navy.

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Since then, the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) has acquired a range of vessels with a potentially global reach—a regional fleet surpassed in size only by Japan, China and India. Indeed, in terms of ship quality, the South Korean vessels are on par with all three.

The ROKN’s ongoing counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia have been only the most visible sign that the country is stepping up on the international maritime stage. But such missions come at an enormous cost, both in terms of time and resources. So why is South Korea pursuing a blue-water naval strategy? And what does it plan to do with it?

The answer to the former question seems, more than anything, to rest in a desire to boost South Korea’s international status. Despite being a war-torn, relatively poor country in the 1950s, six decades of rapid growth have seen it develop into one of the world’s wealthiest nations.

This rapid economic growth has been heavily dependent on maritime access—about 99 percent of its international trade has depended on access to the world’s oceans and waterways. Indeed, with diplomatically isolated North Korea as the only country with which it shares a land border, South Korea has often felt more like an island.

But the country’s rapid economic growth relies in large part on developing countries, many of whom continue to be plagued by instability. Meanwhile, South Korea had no way of defending its overseas interests, meaning that for years the country was reaching its arms around the globe without a shield.

With such concerns in mind, Admiral An Byoung-Tae, then chief of naval operations, asked President Kim Young-Sam in 1995 to prepare for the construction of a blue-water navy. With Kim’s blessing, the ROKN began expanding and shaping its force structure to accommodate future threats.

Almost a decade later, Admiral An wrote an article that made public his vision for what a blue-water navy could mean. According to An, the ROKN should be capable of extended operations within East Asia and short-term operations in more distant theatres such as the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Hormuz. He said the navy should also be able to operate as a member of a multinational coalition, which would enable the South Korean government to play a greater role in international efforts and allow it to better shape the political landscape. Although the ROKN wasn’t envisaged as being as large as Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force or the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), as noted in World Village at the time, An still wanted the South Korean government to havea louder voice in international affairs.

But the development of a more powerful navy isn’t just in South Korea’s interests—it should be seen as good news for the rest of Asia too. The region is, after all, full of rivalries, internal conflicts and territorial disputes as well as being prone to natural disasters and the effects of climate change—all potential triggers for unrest and destabilization.

The 2004 tsunami underscored the need for organized and capable forces to respond to events in the region, yet very few Asian navies possess the size and quality necessary to undertake, much less lead, major relief efforts in such an expansive theatre.

At present, responsibility for overseas maritime operations falls largely on the shoulders of Mobile Task Flotilla 7 (jae7 gidongjeondan), an infant version of a planned future power projection-capable fleet whose floated name has been the Strategic Mobile Fleet (jeollyakgidonghamdae). Established in February, Mobile Task Flotilla 7 is initially composed of the destroyers the ROKN has acquired since 2002—namely the six 4,500-ton KDX-2 and the two 7,500-ton AEGIS-equipped KDX-3 destroyers—as well as a third KDX-3 to be commissioned over the next couple of years.

Both types of ship are multi-role destroyers whose heavy displacement and large hull size allow for the installation of more sophisticated sensors such as the SPY-1D radar on the KDX-3, and a greater variety (and quantity) of longer-range ordnances, such as the Standard Missile-2 (SM-2) anti-air missile, the Harpoon and Sea Star (Haeseong) anti-surface missiles, and the Red Shark (Hongsangeo) anti-submarine rocket (ASROC). Equally important, the destroyers’ large hulls give them greater fuel capacity and the ability to operate on the high seas even in the harshest conditions.

Outside Mobile Task Flotilla 7, the ROKN possesses other vessels capable of overseas deployments. Foremost among them is the 18,000-ton ROKS Dokdo, a flat-deck amphibious assault ship and the largest East Asian naval combat vessel. ROKS Dokdo can accommodate, launch and maintain multiple helicopters and should be capable of doing the same with multiple unmanned aerial vehicles, enabling the ROKN to deploy a respectable contingent of aircraft in state-to-state and non-state operations.

Another benefit of the Dokdo is that it can also function as a sea base capable of accommodating and transporting marines and providing a flexible, mobile and politically palatable way of facilitating South Korea’s growing participation in multilateral peace operations. This ensures that any operations near or along a foreign coastline won’t have to temporarily ‘occupy’ a portion of foreign territory and operate out of stationary land bases, which restricts mobility.

But although these large ships can operate anywhere in the world, it’s important to note that the ROKN’s motivations behind a blue-water navy aren’t entirely ‘outward-looking.’ South Korea’s blue-water aspirations are often represented as being geared solely toward power projection. But there’s more to it than that.

For a start, the flexible deployment of high-end naval assets throughout Korean waters is aimed at allowing South Korea to neutralize nearby threats, including North Korean forces (and, if need be, those of ally China). In addition, the speedy deployment of major vessels such as destroyers outside Korean waters allows the country to quickly move to defend national and international interests overseas.

The defence potential was underscored by the central role played by the KDX-2 destroyers during ‘Invincible Spirit,’ the largest-ever United States-South Korea naval exercise, which was held in July in the East Sea. Remaining true to its name, Mobile Task Flotilla 7 moved quickly between various domestic theatres to undertake highly sophisticated operations. Without these destroyers, the ROKN would have been left to watch the allied naval exercises from the sidelines, playing only a supplementary role using its smaller corvettes and patrol boats. The same would have been true in the event of an actual war.

Since April 2009, the KDX-2 destroyers have been rotating every few months to allow South Korean vessels to operate continuously along the Somali coast, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean and to conduct successful counter-piracy operations as a member of the multinational Combined Task Force-151 led by the United States Navy. The ROKS Gang Gam-Chan alone safely escorted a total of 488 commercial ships during its most recent four-month rotation, thwarting all attempted pirate attacks in the process.

The destroyers have also participated in numerous bilateral, trilateral and multinational exercises in distant waters with the navies of Japan, Singapore, India, Turkey and various European countries, including the Pacific Reach submarine rescue exercise and the Cobra Gold multinational amphibious assault exercise.

But it’s not just Mobile Task Flotilla 7 that has been seeing some action. As reported in Defense Daily, the ROKS Hyangrobong, an amphibious vessel, was dispatched to Indonesia during the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, while Gojunbong class amphibious vessels set sail between 2001 and 2003 as part of the US-led Global War on Terror, transporting military hardware and humanitarian supplies to Guam, Singapore, the Philippines and Diego Garcia.

So what does the future hold for Korean naval power? Over the coming decades, the ROKN’s strategic objectives will most likely look much like today’s efforts to straddle threats tothe country’s own territory and its overseas concerns. The former should, of course, remain the ROKN’s priority. As such, the number of ROKN vessels available for deployment overseas will depend largely on the stability or otherwise around the Korean Peninsula.

That said, recent South Korean media reports indicate there will be further naval procurement, which would give South Korea greater breathing room to deploy a larger number of vessels throughout Asia.These planned ships reportedly include another batch of KDX-2 destroyers, a new class of 4,500-ton amphibious assault ships and at least 10 next-generation KDX-2A destroyers. Should these procurement programmes be realized, the ROKN will have well over 20 blue-water vessels sometime during the 2020’s.

Yet there’s more to developing an effective navy than just sheer number of vessels—the ROKN will need to devise ways to turn its scattered, ad-hoc overseas initiatives into something more regimented. The solution for this could lay in the US Navy-led Global Maritime Partnership. Rooted in the ‘1000-ship navy’ concept first introduced in 2005, the Global Maritime Partnership’s primary objective has been to use the combined capabilities of multinational maritime forces to undertake operations aimed at stabilizing situations across the globe.

As the Global Maritime Partnership isn’t a binding agreement, participating navies may change from operation to operation, while some navies may participate only sporadically depending on the geographic location and political conditions. But through this continuous wave of multinational operations and exercises, the ROKN could find ample opportunities for constant and ‘normalized’ overseas participation, while gradually increasing its contributions. By doing so, it can also develop a greater familiarity and intimacy with Asia’s key naval actors—Japan, India, Singapore and Australia—which would further enhance the ROKN’s ability to operate in multinational and multicultural arrangements.

The impressive advances the South Korean Navy has made are already giving it some of the greater recognition it has been seeking. In September, A.K. Antony became the first Indian defence minister to visit South Korea. A major motivation for his visit was undoubtedly growing concern over a rising China, and India is said to be keen to enhance naval cooperation with South Korea in the Indian Ocean.

Earlier this month, meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Kan Naoto publicly expressed his desire for greater security cooperation between Japan and South Korea, stating that it is ‘very important’ for regional stability that Japan and South Korea form defence ties alongside the US-Japan alliance. Kan’s statement marked the first time in history that a Japanese prime minister had officially stated his desire for military ties with South Korea.

But the potential for greater security co-operation with Japan and India rests largely on South Korea’s navy—by far the country’s most able power projection service. Although the kind of co-operation discussed between South Korea and India and Japan won’t always be explicitly aimed at China, it’s no secret in the region that the PLAN’s build-up is a key driver behind the unprecedented scale of naval modernization programmes taking place across Asia.

The Indian and Japanese overtures then are just part of a bigger picture that's forming in the Asia-Pacific. But it’s already clear that the ROKN’s blue-water development has given the country at least some of the prestige and influence that Admiral An had envisaged. Fortunately for a region that faces the unwelcome prospect of a deteriorating security climate, the past 15 years have seen only the beginning of South Korea's blue-water ambitions.

Mingi Hyun is a research fellow at the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy (KIMS). The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of KIMS.

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