South Korea aims to crank up its weaponry shipments with a new type of submarine with the potential to give small and mid-sized navies in the Pacific an asymmetric edge in underwater warfare.
This month, Naval News reported that South Korea’s HD Hyundai Heavy Industries (HD HHI) is developing an indigenous mid-size submarine for export markets. South Korea’s submarine market is mainly divided between HD HHI and Hanwha Ocean (previously DSME).
The report notes that Dr Won-Ho Joo, chief operating officer of HD HHI’s Naval & Special Ship Business Unit, made the announcement. He emphasized the importance of collaboration between HD HHI and Hanwha Ocean to enhance competitiveness in international bidding and shipbuilding, the Naval News report quoted him as saying.
The report also mentions Hanwha Ocean’s commitment to working with over 200 domestic partner companies for submarine procurement and future maintenance projects.
Naval News mentions that HD HHI is planning to participate in the Canadian Patrol Submarine Project (CPSP) and has signed a technical cooperation agreement with Babcock Canada. It has also signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Polish National Defense company PGZ for Poland’s Orka Project, the nation’s submarine program.
South Korea has previously sold submarines to foreign nations. Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) mentions that in 2011, South Korea outbid Russia, France and Germany on a US$1.1 billion contract to supply Indonesia with three Type 209-class submarines.
NTI notes that the first two submarines, the KRI Nagapasa and KRI Ardadedali, were delivered to Indonesia in 2017 and 2018, while the third submarine, KRI Alugoro, was assembled by PT PAL in Indonesia with South Korean support as part of a technology-sharing program.
However, Asia Times noted in March 2022 that Indonesia is reportedly not satisfied with the performance of its South Korean-built submarines, citing power supply problems connected to the batteries, among other technical issues.
Reports indicate South Korea continues to improve its submarines, producing cutting-edge designs that may have already addressed the problems with its earlier models.
In a 2019 article for the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Richard Bitzinger notes that South Korea began building submarines in the 1990s with the KSS-1, which were license-produced German Type 209-class units, producing nine such vessels.
Bitzinger says the KSS-1 was followed by the KSS-2, a licensed German Type 214 class version. He notes that the KSS-2 was a significant upgrade over the KSS-1, which is larger, heavier and, most importantly, runs on air-independent propulsion (AIP) technology. Nine KSS-2s were built between 2006 and 2017.
The KSS-2 was followed up by the KSS-3, one of the biggest conventional submarines at 3,000 tons, making it capable of blue-water operations. Bitzinger notes that the class is heavily armed with traditional torpedo tubes and a six-silo vertical launch system (VLS) for anti-ship, cruise and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).
The KSS-3 is the world’s first AIP submarine capable of launching SLBMs. Bitzinger says later versions of the submarine may have a 10-silo VLS for SLBMs.
Currently, South Korea has 2 KSS-3 submarines, with plans to have nine units. South Korea’s new mid-size export submarine would likely be a variant of the KSS-3, with each unit designed according to technology export restrictions and customer specifications.
South Korea, a major emerging arms exporter, is well-poised to be a major player in emerging submarine markets, most notably in nearby Southeast Asia.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), South Korea was the world’s 9th largest arms exporter in 2022, accounting for 2.4% of global arms exports, with most of its sales going to the Philippines, India, and Thailand.
SIPRI data indicates a massive leap in South Korean arms exports between 2013 and 2017 and between 2018 and 2022, showing a 74% increase between the two five-year periods.
Submarines are high on Southeast Asian nations’ military wish lists, driven largely by fears about China’s increasing naval might in the South China Sea. Regional nations are also engaged in low-level arms races where neighbors seek to keep pace with each other’s arsenals.
In July 2023, Defense News reported that Singapore received the first of four German-built Type 218SG submarines to replace its aging Archer and Challenger-class units. Defense News notes that the Type 218SG is specially designed for tropical waters and possesses state-of-the-art capabilities, significant payload capacity, high levels of automation, enhanced underwater endurance and optimized ergonomics.
Naval News reported in June 2023 that major shipbuilders such as France’s Naval Group, Spain’s Navantia and Hanwha Ocean have offered the Philippines various submarine deals as the latter struggles to modernize its military amidst increased Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.
However, given its overreliance on the US and limited defense budget, it is unclear if the Philippines has the political will and resources to pursue its longstanding submarine ambitions.
Asia Times reported in May 2023 that Indonesia had selected France over South Korea as its submarine program’s leading partner. Indonesia plans to acquire two Scorpene-class submarines with a preliminary agreement between PT PAL and Naval Group to collaborate on building two units and establish a joint research and development facility.
Indonesia views submarines as an asymmetric power projection asset, as it does not have the resources to build a blue-water navy.
The New Straits Times reported in February 2023 that Malaysia plans to acquire two more submarines in addition to the two Scorpene-class units it already operates.
New Straits Times says that the first submarine will be acquired between 2031 and 2035 and the second between 2036 and 2040. The report notes that Malaysia views submarines as strategic assets as they are involved in the sensitive South China Sea disputes.
As for China, NTI notes that as of March 2023 China had 56 submarines comprised of six nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), six nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN) and 44 diesel-electric attack submarines (SSK), with 17 of the 44 vessels running on AIP technology.