How South Korea Became A Submarine-Building Powerhouse
How Seoul is planning to dominate Asian waters—beneath the waves.
Before the early 1990s, the Republic of Korean Navy fielded a relatively modest assortment of smaller submarines, notably the Dolgorae-class, which were small, optimized for near-shore operations, and not particularly well equipped for large-scale deterrence missions or blue water patrols. In order to rapidly advance the ROK Navy’s capabilities, Seoul initiated the Korean Attack Submarine Program. Here’s what it produced.
Though South Korea is one of the global hubs for ship manufacturing—and likely the number one country for ship production by tonnage—submarine design is a different beast entirely. Rather than struggle through research and development on their own, the ROK Navy turned to one of the heavyweights in submarine design, the Germans firm Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft, also known by its acronym, HDW.
The result was a variant of the firm’s Type 209 diesel-electric attack submarine. In ROK naval service, the class is known as the Jang Bogo-class. The relatively modest-sized submarine is conventionally armed with 533-millimeter torpedoes and has a fifty-day endurance. Though not exactly a heavyweight in the world of submarine tech, the submarine’s displacement and extended range provided the ROK Navy with the range needed to conduct deterrence patrols.
The next acquisition under the KAS Programs was again from HDW. The ROK acquired the larger Type 214, a derivative of the Type 212 which is not available for export. In South Korean service, it is known as the Son Won Il-class and, like the Jang Bogo-class, it has eight 533mm torpedo tubes.
The last design under the KAS Program is an indigenous design, called the Dosan Anh Changho-class. Though currently one of the subs is currently undergoing sea trials, the ROK plans to acquire a total of nine Dosan Anh Changho-class hulls.
The class represents the largest submarines ever built by South Korea, and their endurance is correspondingly wide—the subs could easily reach any part of the waters near the Korean peninsula with ease, not to mention areas further afield—including the South China Sea if need be.
One of the more noteworthy aspects of the Dosan Anh Changho-class is its vertical missile launch system, rather uncreatively named the Korean Vertical Launching System. Though a standard feature with many of the world’s leading navies, a vertical launch capability would give Seoul a powerful new tool in their quiver.
The Dosan Anh Changho-class is to be built in three tranches of three hulls each. The first two tranches, projected to be operational in the early to mid-2020, will be equipped with six vertical launch tubes, while the last three-hull tranche will have an expanded ten launch tubes and should be delivered by the end of this decade.
If all goes according to schedule, Seoul will be able to boast one of the most capable, if not the largest, submarine fleet in Asia. Watch out Beijing and Pyongyang.
Caleb Larson is a defense writer with the National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.
Image: ROK Government.