SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea has become the sixth country in the world to establish an independent submarine command, a move that underscores the increasing emphasis on undersea operations around the Asia-Pacific region.
Better protecting the country from North Korean naval threats was a key factor behind the reorganization, South Korean officials said.
The new command brings operations, logistics, training and maintenance — all of which had been piecemeal responsibilities for different departments within the larger navy — under one roof, a spokesman for the service’s Gyeryong-shi headquarters said Tuesday.
“The command was changed from a one-star rank to a two-star rank now, for taking more responsibility for undersea operations,” added the spokesman, who spoke under customary condition of anonymity.
South Korea possesses 12 diesel-electric submarines, including three advanced Song Won-il Class boats, with plans to procure more in the next few years. They also have 11 midget submarines, according to The Military Balance 2014, published by the International Institute for Security Studies think tank.
North Korea has an estimated 72 submarines, according to The Military Balance 2014. While many of those ships are considered technologically inferior to the world’s most modern subs, there are signs that North Korea’s fleet has undergone some upgrades.
In 2011, North Korea began introducing a larger, faster variant of its diesel-electric Shark-class submarine, according to several South Korean media reports quoting government sources.
About 20 of North Korea’s total stock are midget submarines. In 2010, an international investigation concluded that a North Korean midget submarine fired a torpedo on South Korea’s destroyer ROKS Cheonan five years ago, killing 46 aboard. North Korea has denied involvement in the disaster.
Some media reports have speculated that North Korea is considering developing a ballistic missile-capable submarine, through South Korean officials have never confirmed it. Analysts believe such a vessel is several years away.
U.S. military officials have embraced South Korea’s undersea efforts; in January, the U.S. conducted a bilateral exercise that included anti-submarine warfare training.
Sixty percent of the U.S. submarine fleet already is based in the Pacific, a move the surface fleet will mirror by 2020. However, as Cold War-era subs reach their retirement dates, the fast-attack submarine fleet is projected to shrink 25 percent by 2028, even as the Navy commissions new boats annually.
To make up for fewer numbers, the U.S. may rely more on its allies to preserve regional stability, Rear Adm. Stuart Munsch, commander of Submarine Group 7, told Stars and Stripes in August.
South Korea, Japan and Vietnam have all announced plans to increase submarine procurement during the next few years. China has also vastly upgraded its submarine arsenal, which includes nuclear-powered vessels.
-- Erik Slavin contributed to the story from Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan.