By Jung Sung-ki
Moving away from a decade-long emphasis on open-sea operations, South Korea's Navy is redrawing its operational and procurement plans for coastal defense against a possible North Korean invasion.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Kim Sung-chan recently redirected the focus in an effort to bolster the Navy’s defense readiness against North Korean provocation, following the sinking of the ROK Navy ship Cheonan on March 26 in the West Sea, a Navy spokesman said Wednesday.
A Seoul-led multinational team of investigators determined that the frigate was sunk by a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine. Pyongyang denies its involvement in the incident that claimed the lives of 46 sailors.
“A consensus has been built among Navy leaders that it’s the time to put an emphasis on deterring North Korea’s maritime provocation than developing our blue-water capability,” the spokesman said.
Against that backdrop, the Navy will draw up new tactics and strategies more focused on thwarting North Korean provocation.
For instance, the Navy will operate “search and attack units” consisting of two patrol ships in the West Sea, he said.
The service will also speed up efforts to acquire high-tech naval defense systems, in particular anti-submarine warfare (ASW) equipment. Key procurement items include minesweepers, anti-submarine helicopters and sonar systems.
Critics say, however, such a move could take the South Korean Navy backward and against worldwide naval trends.
“Few navies in the world focus on littoral warfare. Navies are inherently supposed to pursue expanding their deep-sea operations,” a retired Navy commander said, requesting anonymity. “Efforts to develop a blue-water force have been successful over the past decade and should continue. At the same time, coastal defenses against a North Korean attack should be boosted and readjusted.”
A year after the historic inter-Korean summit in 2000, the then Kim Dae-jung administration in the South, which pursued the "Sunshine” policy of engaging the communist North, laid out detailed plans to develop a blue-water force capable of securing economic and defense interests far from shore.
Since then, the ROK Navy has built its open-seas capability by launching the 14,000-ton Dokdo Landing Platform Helicopter, 7,600-ton KDX-III Aegis destroyers, 1,800-ton Type-214 submarines and 450-ton PKG class guided-missile boats.
In February, the service launched its first squadron led by an Aegis destroyer, the KDX-III destroyer, and three 4,500-ton KDX-II destroyers. The Navy plans to inaugurate one more squadron later this year to establish a "strategic mobile fleet.”