With the Ukrainian crisis and Olympics dominating the news, it’s understandable that the Presidential election in South Korea — one of America’s most important allies — has not gotten the attention it deserves. A key issue in this close race is whether or not South Korea will push Washington to green light South Korea’s nuclear submarine program. The Progressive candidate, Lee Jae-myung, says yes. The Conservative Yoon Suk-yeol has pushed back, favoring investing in space and other nonnuclear cutting-edge defense-related technologies.
I can’t say which of the candidates is the best but the case against South Korea investing in nuclear submarines seems straightforward. As I argue in the attached piece, “Nuclear Submarines for Our Pacific Allies: When to Say Yes,” whatever a nuclear submarine could do for South Korea, nonnuclear systems could do better.
Australia is different. Located thousands of miles from the seas close to China or Pyongyang, it needs a stealthy military platform that can move long distances quickly and stay on station for extended periods. For Australia, nuclear submarines make sense. For Seoul, which is close to China and North Korea and surrounded by closed seas, they don’t. To monitor and neutralize North Korean and Chinese naval threats in South Korea’s local waters, super-quiet air-independent conventional subs and other nonnuclear technologies make far more sense.
Nor, as some argue, does Seoul need nuclear submarines to assure it can fire conventional missile counter-strikes. This mission can be accomplished for far less cost per missile firing with mobile ground-based systems. As for fulfilling aspirations for a blue water navy, small aircraft carriers and a respectable surface fleet can accomplish this and do so without compounding the growing challenge of identifying nuclear submarines as friends or foes in the open seas.
As I note, these points matter because the United States wants Pacific allies whose militaries are highly leveraged for success. In addition, there is a nuclear weapons proliferation worry with South Korea. It got close to acquiring nuclear weapons covertly in the 1970s. This bad history could repeat itself if Seoul were to develop an indigenous uranium enrichment program, something that Seoul has long been pushing for. If South Korea had a serious nuclear submarine program, enriching its own uranium to fuel them would likely follow. Unfortunately, it also would alarm Japan, a country that has mulled getting nuclear weapons itself.
Bottom line: While nuclear submarines may make sense for Australia, they could prove to be a dangerous distraction for Seoul and Tokyo.
February 17, 2022
Author: Henry Sokolski
Nuclear Submarines for Our Pacific Allies: When to Say Yes
By Henry Sokolski
On March 9th, South Korea will elect a new president. One of the first things the new president will have to determine is whether or not to get Washington to support South Korea’s development and fueling of a nuclear submarine fleet. The Progressive candidate, Lee Jae-myung, has publicly vowed to press the United States to cut a submarine technology transfer deal for South Korea similar to what Washington struck with Australia. In a recent interview, Mr. Lee noted, “It is absolutely necessary for us to have those subs.”
But is it? Mr. Lee’s key opponent, Yoon Suk-yeol, says no. He favors investing in military space and airborne surveillance systems instead. In fact, if South Korea is serious about neutralizing the naval threats it faces, it would do far better with a sound mix of advanced nonnuclear anti-submarine and anti-surface systems than with nuclear submarines.
A detailed study, which The Naval War College Review just published, spells out why. Commissioned by my center and authored by James Campbell Jr., of Naval Sea System Command, “Seoul’s Misguided Desire for Nuclear Submarines,” details how poorly nuclear submarines would perform in the relatively closed East China, Yellow, and East Seas, which border Korea. His conclusion: The best way to track and contain North Korean naval threats and help the United States and Japan monitor the first Island Chain (the islands connecting Russia, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines) is not with nuclear submarines. For these particular missions, nuclear submarines are vastly more expensive and far less effective than a proper mix of advanced nonnuclear naval systems.
Such systems include upgrading South Korea’s air-independent propulsion submarines, anti-submarine aircraft, and naval surface combatants; upgrading, sharing, and analyzing acoustic and non-acoustic anti-submarine sensor information with Washington and Seoul; and investing in new anti-submarine technologies. The latter include airborne and underwater drones, wave runners, artificial intelligence-enhanced anti-submarine systems and the like.
To read the entire article click here.