South Korean Navy takes on expanded strategic role in face of evolving North Korean nuclear threat

Faced with the arrival of new North Korean nuclear vectors, the South Korean Navy is acquiring first strike capabilities towards land in order to fully take its place in the 3-axis doctrine ensuring the strategic balance against Pyongyang.

Until the end of the 2010s, the threat posed by North Korea's strategic systems was essentially made up of nuclear-capable surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, with short-range systems from the SCUD family, then, from the beginning of the 2000s, the appearance of purely national systems, such as the Hwasong-7 or Nodong-1 medium-range ballistic missile.

From the second half of the 2010s, new high-performance indigenous systems were tested by Pyongyang, whether semi-ballistic trajectory ballistic missiles like the KN-17, intercontinental missiles like the Hwasong-14, and even medium-changing ballistic missiles and missiles with KN-23 hypersonic gliders, as well as new cruise missile models.

At the same time, the North Korean Navy began to equip itself witha new class of submarine derived from the Soviet Romeo class and designated the Sinpo class, capable of implementing SLBM medium-changing ballistic missiles, posing a new threat to its neighbour, and above all undermining the “3-axis” doctrine implemented by Seoul.

In fact, to deal with the nuclear threat from Pyongyang, the South Korean armed forces have developed a doctrine likely to contain it, articulated around three complementary aspects: the use of preventive strikes against the nuclear sites and capabilities of North Korea North, as soon as the threat of a nuclear strike is considered imminent, the interception of nuclear vectors thanks to a large network of detection and interception systems with anti-ballistic capability, and a set of massive conventional strikes to decapitate the capabilities adversary command, communications and logistics.

In this context, the appearance of new threats, in particular North Korean submarines capable of implementing nuclear-capable ballistic weapons, has naturally transformed the topology of the threat, to which now responds the profound transformation affecting the South Korean Navy, in particular by giving it a new role in the “3-axis” doctrine.

The South Korean Navy has acquired ships equipped with anti-ballistic missiles to densify the country's anti-missile shield
Launch of the destroyer Jeongjo le Grand in July 2022, first ship of the second batch of the KDX program, equipped with anti-ballistic capabilities with the SM-3 Block1B missile and the SPY-1D(v) radar

For this, the South Korean Navy has begun a major effort to acquire a vast fleet of autonomous systems, both surface and underwater naval drones, as well as aerial drones.

Thus, if today autonomous systems, such as the ASWUUV anti-submarine warfare drone in development since 2017, only represent 1% of the equipment aligned by the country's Navy, the objective announced now is to reach 9% by 2025, almost 30% by 2030 and a final target of around 45% at the start of the 2040s.

Their function will be precisely to keep North Korean naval capabilities under constant control, and in particular to be able to track and therefore destroy on short notice ships and submarines equipped with nuclear-capable systems, which they are submarines armed with SLBM missiles or corvettes and frigates potentially equipped with cruise missiles, and as well as satisfying the first of the aspects of the doctrine. But the role of the South Korean navy will not end there.

Indeed, it will soon receive, during the coming year, the first of three destroyers of the Jeongjo le Grand class, an evolution of the large anti-aircraft destroyer of the Sejong le Grand class, specially designed to respond to the second part of the “3 axes” doctrine.


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