MANILA, Philippines — South Korea and the United States are exploring whether the former’s defense industry could help maintain, repair and overhaul the latter’s warships and weapons, according to a series of news releases from South Korea’s Defense Ministry.
The two countries have held talks about ships for a year now, but only in December did they begin discussing MRO services for weapons as well.
“If weapons used by the U.S. military in the Indo-Pacific can be maintained domestically, the domestic [MRO] industry capabilities can be expanded and maintenance periods can be shortened,” the ministry noted.
Indeed, the U.S. Navy has expressed interest in improving maintenance efforts. In an overseas war, the Navy would tow ships into a foreign port.
Rear Adm. William Greene, who is in charge of surface ship maintenance, said the service has an eye on preparing for battle damage. The Navy in recent years incorporated battle damage into major exercises, putting decommissioned ships out to sea and detonating explosives onboard so sailors can practice towing ships back to port and running battle damage assessment and repairs.
Vice Adm. James Downey, the head of Naval Sea Systems Command, said the service is drafting a proposal for a future budget year to practice these scenarios at real shipyards in allied countries. This initiative would allow for up to six U.S.-based ships to undergo maintenance overseas — perhaps three in the Pacific and three in Europe — during repair periods of up to 90 days.
While 90 days is much shorter than a typical yard period at home, it would allow foreign repair facilities to learn how to do business with the Navy, understand American ship designs and systems, and lay the groundwork for potential emergency repairs.
Notably, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said it has explored the possibility of using “condition-based maintenance” — or preventative maintenance — under the country’s Defense Innovation 4.0 program, which uses sensor data to provide real-time assessments of weapons.
A bilateral agreement could also improve the combat readiness of troops from both countries, the ministry said, noting this would contribute to stability in the region.
The U.S. maintains about 28,000 troops in South Korea under a decades-long treaty, and the two countries regularly hold joint exercises amid threats from North Korea. The U.S. military also maintains assets in Japan, where the two countries are discussing more comprehensive MRO services for American weapons and platforms with Japanese companies.
Last year, South Korean companies HD Hyundai Heavy Industries, Hanjin Heavy Industries, SK oceanplant, and Hanwha Ocean as well as officials from the government’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration visited the American shipyards of HII, Austal, General Dynamics NASSCO and Norfolk Naval Shipyard to explore possible joint shipbuilding and MRO projects.
The meeting was to “confirm the status of commitments,” explore ways to quell “supply chain instability” and the loss of skilled employees, and identify ways to “overcome institutional and environmental difficulties facing the shipbuilding industry,” the Defense Acquisition Program Administration said. Attendees also discussed the development of advanced technologies, how to improve ship quality and the creation of quality assurance measures at the ship-design stage, DAPA added.
In December 2023 and January 2024, U.S. Defense Department officials and their South Korean counterparts attended workshops to discuss ways to reorganize Korean industry’s capacity and how to overcome obstacles. The latter event involved defense officials from several other countries, including Japan, Australia, Britain, Germany, France and Canada.
“There is a need for cooperation and action at the level of the U.S. government and allied countries,” the South Korean Defense Ministry said.
DAPA declined to share updates on ship MRO partnership opportunities, citing the “sensitive” nature of the topic. But it did tell Defense News the government created a unit under DAPA to manage industry partnerships with the U.S.
South Korean defense companies have been expanding their presence in the U.S. In 2017, Kencoa Aerospace — a supplier of aerospace and defense technology — completed the acquisition of a metal crafter in the U.S. state of Georgia.
Last year, Hanwha Ocean, one of South Korea’s leading naval defense contractors, established a local subsidiary in the United States. And LIG Nex1 announced plans to acquire a majority stake in the American firm Ghost Robotics.
Megan Eckstein contributed to this report.
Leilani Chavez is an Asia correspondent for Defense News. Her reporting expertise is in East Asian politics, development projects, environmental issues and security.