SEOUL — The South Korean Navy is focusing on modernization efforts to guard against North Korean coastal threats while building a deep sea operational capability.
The service launched an independent submarine command Feb. 1, highlighting its a move that underscores emphasis on undersea operations to counter North Korea and other regional security threats. The command, the sixth of its kind in the world, brings operations, logistics, training and maintenance under one roof, according to Navy officials.
"The command's main mission is to better protect the country from North Korean naval provocations, as the North is increasingly building up its underwater capabilities," Cmdr. Lim Myung-soo, at the Navy's public affairs office, said.
The command, located in the southern port city of Jinhae, operates 13 diesel-electric submarines — nine 1,200-ton 209-class, and four 1,800-ton 214-class subs — with five more 214 subs being commissioned by 2020.
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The Navy's arms buildup, effort, however, is are likely to be hindered by a string of corruption scandals involving top Navy officers.
Former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Hwang Ki-chul has been indicted for irregularities regarding the procurement of a naval salvage ship, named Tongyeong.
Hwang, who stepped down last month, is suspected of having helped a foreign sonar supplier win a contract in the construction of the 3,500-ton Tongyeong by manipulating documents related to the evaluation of the ship's performances when he worked as director of the naval ship procurement bureau at the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) in 2009.
Due to defects in the sonar system, the salvage ship failed to participate in rescue operations during last year's ferry tragedy that killed more than 300 people.
Former CNO Chung Ok-geun, who led the Navy from 2008-2010, was also arrested in January on charges of taking bribes from a local arms agency after helping it win a deal to acquire telecommunications and electronic intelligence-collecting devices for spy ships.
"A series of arms procurement corruption scandals has eroded public confidence seriously in the Navy's arms buildup efforts," said Yang Wook, a KODEF researching member of the Korea Defense & Security Forum (KODEF). "That means any naval buildup programs in the future will be censored thoroughly and questioned every time, which could delay the timing of weapons deployment and harm the security posture."
In other plans, the Navy also will deploy nine 3,000-ton heavy attack submarines, code named KSS-III, equipped with multiple vertical launch tubes to fire 1,500-kilometer cruise missiles that could hit key targets in North Korea. The development of the KSS-III lead ship started last November at the dockyard of Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering.
The North is believed to have about 70 submarines, including 20 of the 1,800-ton Romeo class. In particular, the communist state is thought to be developing an upgraded version of the Soviet-designed Romeo sub that can fire a ballistic missile.
"Though North Korean submarines are presumed to be inferior to South Korean subs in terms of modernization and capabilities, they pose grave threats to the security of South Koreans," said Shin In-kyun, president of the Korea Defense Network, a Seoul-based defense-related civic group. "The submarine command is to serve as the groundwork for the South's deterrence underwater."
As part of efforts To beef up anti-submarine operations, the Navy plans to procure 12 more naval helicopters; in 2013, the service bought eight AW-159 Lynx Wildcat helicopters for about $540 million.
"A final decision to procure more naval helicopters is to be made by the year's end after a preliminary study on the required operational capability," Cmdr. Park Sung-soo, vice spokesman for DAPA, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), said.
The AW-159 is considered a strong candidate for the new contract, while the Sikorsky MH-60 Seahawk and a modified variant of the Surion utility helicopter built by Korea Aerospace Industries are competing, for it, according to sources.
On top of the naval helicopter procurement, new Frigate acquisition plans also are on track. Under the FFX batch I program, five 2,300-ton Incheon-class frigates have been commissioned, with one more hull planned to be set afloat this year.
The warship will take charge of operations, such as coastal patrol and anti-submarine warfare. It has a maximum speed of 50 knots and is armed with Raytheon's Mk 49 RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) surface-to-air weapon, and a Phalanx Block 1B close-in weapon system.
The ship has a hull-mounted sonar and six torpedo tubes carrying indigenously developed "Blue Shar" 324mm torpedoes.
Under the second batch program, up to 12 more frigates are projected to enter service by 2020. These ships areis expected to be built slightly larger and feature be tied to a vertical launch system for locally designed medium-range air defense missiles in place of the batch I's short-range RAM.
The fleet of new frigates is expected to help counter threats posed by North Korea's ship destroyers, according to Kim Dae-young, a researching member of KODEF. the Korea Defense & Security Forum. (KODEF).
"New radars and sensors of the new frigates will help thwart the threats of North Korean 'stealth' destroyers recently unveiled," Kim said.
In February, the North released an image of its new "stealth" ship-destroyer, threatening that it can strike South Korean and US vessels without warning at any time.
Pyongyang's state media said the high-speed ship was the result of a 10-year project, claiming it would be extremely adding it's incredibly difficult for other vessels to detect the destroyer before it launched sea-skimming missiles.
Jeff Jeong was the South Korea correspondent for Defense News.