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The South Korean Navy Has Big Plans Ahead

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The South Korean Navy Has Big Plans Ahead

Why is the South Korean government looking at scaling up its naval capabilities?

Released on August 14, South Korea’s five year defense plan has some big implications for what the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) will look like in the future. As Xavier Vavasseur notes, the plan offered a glimpse of the overall direction of South Korea’s defense efforts, with special attention to the building plans of the ROKN.

The plan confirmed South Korea’s interest in a light aircraft carrier of roughly the same size as Japan’s JS Izumo. This ship will presumably operate F-35B Joint Strike Fighters, along with an array of helicopters and potentially unmanned vehicles. Joseph Trevithick has additional details on the reasoning behind South Korea’s interest in a short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft carrier. Japan is certainly an important consideration, but North Korea’s vast artillery and conventional ballistic missile capabilities can put stationary airfields across the South at considerable risk.

The plan also underlined a continued commitment to the large KDX III Batch II destroyers, which will have formidable defensive and offensive armaments (including a 128 cell vertical launch system, or VLS). These ships will act as escorts to the new carrier and the existing Dokdo-class amphibious assault ships, but can also conduct missile defense and act as a powerful offensive platform in their own right. South Korea also remains committed to a new generation of conventional submarine, the KSS-III Batch II. These boats will have an expanded set of VLS cells for land attack, but will also pose a significant threat to North Korea’s emerging undersea deterrent force.

Furthermore, the plan included an “arsenal ship” in the 4,000-5,000 ton range. Apparently based on the KDX II destroyer, the arsenal ship would presumably sacrifice defensive armament for a large number of VLS cells dedicated to cruise missiles. The United States Navy has mulled over the arsenal ship concept on several occasions, but never taken the bait. Most U.S. designs involve much larger ships, however. The existence of such a ship would enhance the ROKN’s ability to strike from the sea, particularly from unexpected vectors. The anti-ship assets of the North Korean air force and navy remain limited, meaning that such a ship (which would undoubtedly have the stealth characteristics of the KDX class) could preserve South Korea’s conventional strike capabilities even in the context of a concerted attack on land facilities across the country.

Altogether, the plans indicate that the South Korean government remains committed to a large scale navy, one that can address specific tactical problems associated posed by North Korea while also acting as a respectable blue water force. The construction plans do not necessarily indicate that Seoul expects an increase in tensions with either China or Japan, but it certainly leaves the Koreans with options for addressing either contingency.