By Sang-Min Kim
The South Korean navy in August commissioned its first locally developed submarine capable of launching ballistic missiles. The weapon is part of a military buildup that is mainly driven by a desire to establish a more robust defense against North Korea, but other factors are also at work.
Equipped with six vertical launching tubes that can accommodate ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and various other armaments, such as mines, the Dosan An Chang-ho is the first of three 3,000-ton attack submarines intended to enhance South Korea’s underwater defense capabilities and is scheduled to be deployed next year. Several local defense companies, such as LIG Nex1 and STX Engine, contributed to the project.
Although North Korea maintains one of the largest submarine fleets in the world, it is believed to be comprised of about 70 outdated attack and midget submarines and submarines that are usable only for coastal water operations. North Korea has been developing several types of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and at least one ballistic missile submarine that would increase the survivability of its midrange ballistic missiles, but its missile and nuclear programs are the real long-term threat and the key drivers of South Korea’s military buildup.
South Korea is the first military without nuclear weapons to commission submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles. Notably, only seven other countries have developed a workable SLBM. South Korea’s existing submarine force consists of 1,200-ton and 1,800-ton diesel-electric attack submarines that are too small to be equipped with ballistic missiles.
Jeon Yong-gyu, head supervisor for the South Korean project, said at the Aug. 13 commissioning ceremony that the submarine’s commission “can be considered as a significant milestone that can once again prove to the world the advanced technology of the Korean defense industry [and] it should serve as a signal for a leap forward in defense industry technology.”
The submarine is one of many projects on the South Korean defense industry’s agenda, underscoring a larger official effort to strengthen the country’s indigenous defense technology companies. Over the next five years, South Korea will increase the amount of its defense budget going to purchase indigenously-produced weapons, Defense Minister Suh Wook said last year at a defense expo, DX Korea 2020. This has since crystallized into a formal "Buy Korea Defense" policy.
“What should not be overlooked in most of these instances is the role of arms exports,” Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told Arms Control Today in an Aug. 5 email. “The [South Korean] arms industry often seems more attuned to demand from abroad than [South Korea’s] own requirement. There is also pressure on the military to buy locally produced arms,” he added.
South Korea’s defense industry plays a major role in many critical initiatives, including a $2.6 billion project to develop an indigenous version of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. The project, approved by the Defense Ministry in June, would defend key infrastructure by destroying incoming threats from North Korea, such as artillery shells, short-range missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles.
In March, South Korea also unveiled the KF-21 Boramae, the country’s first locally developed supersonic fighter jet. The plan is to deploy a fleet of 120 of the aircraft by 2032 and arm them with new supersonic air-to-surface missiles.
“[Such] pressure may make it harder for the military to acquire foreign systems that meet its short-term needs when the manufacturers are promising an indigenous alternative in just a few years. The L-SAM program comes to mind,” Pollack suggested. The L-SAM is an indigenous, long-range surface-to-air missile system that would operate as part of South Korea’s ballistic missile defense system, called the Korean Air and Missile Defense, by intercepting targets at an altitude of 40 kilometers or higher.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has increased the country’s annual military spending by an average of 7 percent, some 3 percent higher than his predecessor, and robust investment in weapons procurement seems likely to continue. With $253 billion projected for defense spending in fiscal years 2021 to 2025, one-third of that amount would be allocated to procuring such weapons as a light aircraft carrier, a nuclear-powered submarine, Boramae fighters, new missile systems, and satellites, according to South Korea’s intermediate national defense plan.
“The bottom line is that defense acquisition is neither entirely rational, nor entirely about national defense requirements,” Pollack stated.