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South Korea begins designing arsenal ships bristling with missiles

South Korea begins designing arsenal ships bristling with missiles

                                                                                                                                 INDUSTRY WATCH | 26 APRIL 2023

USN Arsenal Ship.png
US DoD | USN Arsenal Ship

The Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) is proving serious about obtaining ‘arsenal ships’ packed with missiles, after Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering (DSME) was awarded a contract to produce a concept design.

The contract for what is officially called the Joint Firepower Ship was signed on 13 April, with the ROK seeking up to three such vessels designed specifically for launching land attacks.

The concept design will make decisions about the size, shape and missile payload of the ship, and this work should be completed by year’s end. At this stage it is expected that each arsenal ship displacing anywhere from 5,000t upwards could carry 80+ ballistic and cruise missiles. 

The feasibility of the concept still needs to be ascertained before further design work continues after that. Nonetheless, Seoul is expected to include funding for the arsenal ship’s basic design in the 2024 midterm defence plan. 

If green lights are granted, a first vessel could be ready in five years, and three in service by the end of the decade.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff identified potential Joint Firepower Ships as part of their long-term procurement plans way back in 2018. 

The Defense Acquisition and Program Administration (DAPA) has also set aside KRW600 billion ($455 million) to develop a new ship-launched ballistic missile from 2024-36. It would equip both KDX-IV destroyers and the Joint Firepower Ship, if it proceeds.

The two aforementioned vessel types would also utilise the future KVLS-II vertical-launch system. 

The theory is that such arsenal ships and missiles would contribute to South Korea’s kill chain to deter North Korean aggression. They would enable Seoul to strike back against North Korea, which has a highly active ballistic missile programme, or even to conduct pre-emptive strikes.

South Korea has limited numbers of land-based launcher vehicles for Hyunmoo missiles, plus they take time to reload. Military officials think the Joint Firepower Ship could help overcome these liabilities, especially where a large initial salvo is required. 

However, question marks remain over the vulnerability of such a ship, for it would be susceptible to air or submarine attack. While they might have defensive weaponry such as CIWS and torpedoes, they would still require escorts during wartime, taking away valuable combat ships from other duties. 

Furthermore, arsenal ships would not have the stealth of a submarine armed with ballistic missiles. The US Navy toyed with the idea of arsenal ships in the 1990s, but it eventually decided not to proceed. 

Ships require routine time in dock for maintenance, plus the loss of a single ship would put a huge dent in South Korea’s strategic missile stockpiles.

Against North Korea, which has limited submarine and long-range anti-ship missile capabilities, arsenal ships might make sense. In a war with an adversary like China, however, they would be at great risk.

South Korea will establish its Strategic Command next year, with this force responsible for managing the country’s missiles and missile defences.

By: Gordon Arthur/ Christchurch
Article | Shephard Media