GEOJE, South Korea --- South Korea has launched its second locally-built 3,000-ton submarine, speeding up its program to develop indigenous submarines including nuclear-powered vessels.
A ceremony for the launch of the diesel-powered submarine took place at the Okpo Shipyard of Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering (DSME) on Geoje Island in South Gyeongsang Province, Nov. 10.
The new submarine Ahnmu is named after Gen. Ahn Mu, an independence fighter who led his forces to victories against the Japanese Imperial Army in the battles of Bongodong and Cheongsanri in northeastern China in 1920. It is the second submarine developed under the Navy's Changbogo-III (KSS-III) Batch-I submarine construction project.
The Changbogo project is part of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration's (DAPA) plan to build submarines with indigenous technologies in three phases. In the first Changbogo-I project, it built nine 1,200-ton submarines and in Changbogo-II, nine 1,800-ton submarines.
In the Changbogo-III, three 3,000-ton submarines will be made in Batch-I, another three 3,600-ton ones in Batch-II, and another three 4,000-ton ones in Batch-III. The first 3,000-ton one in Batch-I, the Dosan Ahn Chang-ho, was launched in 2018.
While completing the Changbogo-I and the Changbogo-II projects from the mid-1990s to 2017, Korea has secured the capability to design and build its own submarines with local technologies. The proportions of indigenous technologies used to develop the whole system of submarines was 33.7 percent for the Changbogo-I project and 38.6 percent for Changbogo-II.
The proportion, however, has notably jumped to 76.2 percent for the Changbogo-III.
Roadmap for nuclear sub
Military watchers say the first phase of the Changbogo-III project is about drawing an outline to ultimately build 4,000-ton nuclear-powered submarines.
In August, the defense ministry announced its plan to build 3,600-ton and 4,000-ton diesel-powered submarines in the upcoming five years. The 4,000-ton submarines, in particular, could change their power propulsion systems from diesel to nuclear.
In fact, Kim Hyun-chong, the second deputy director of the National Security Office, said the country's next-generation submarine would run on nuclear power.
Defense Minister Suh Wook's congratulatory message for the launch of the Ahnmu also drew attention for such an expectation.
"In the near future, our Navy will be reborn as an advanced oceanic Navy equipped with next-generation Korean destroyers and 4,000-ton submarines, along with light aircraft carriers, which will be the Navy's core power," Suh said.
A combination of a light aircraft carrier, a nuclear-powered submarine and an Aegis ship with a U.S.-developed integrated naval weapons system could form a small carrier battle group.
While building a nuclear-powered submarine was one of President Moon Jae-in's campaign promises, however, hurdles still remain.
Among the hurdles is an agreement made between the U.S. and Korea on the civil use of atomic energy, which restricts Korea's enrichment of uranium to the 20 percent level and strictly prohibits the military use of enriched uranium.
Attention is now on how the Moon government will negotiate over the issue with the upcoming U.S. administration under Joe Biden, who is expected to become the 46th U.S. president in January.
Korea's achievements in submarine development
Korea's achievements in the development of its own submarines, however, are notable in that it started the development about a century later than other advanced countries but has secured its own technologies to design and build them.
During the Changbogo-I and the Changbogo-II projects, the country also became the fifth exporting country of submarines after the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and France.
By successfully launching two submarines in the first phase of the Changbogo-III project, Korea has also become the 15th country to design and build mid-level submarines through its own technologies.
The Ahnmu is 83.3 meters long and 9.6 meters wide and about twice as large as the Changbogo-II class submarines, with a capacity of 50 crewmembers on board. Its maximum speed underwater is faster than 20 knots (37 km/h). With a faster speed than earlier submarines, it could chase and sink enemy submarines. Its duration of underwater submersion has also been increased, improving its operational capabilities.
The Ahnmu also has six vertical launchers capable of deploying submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), which the Korean military is planning to obtain in the future.
The Ahnmu is scheduled to be delivered to the Navy in December 2022 after an acceptance evaluation period and expected to be deployed in January 2024.
Including Minister Seo, around 50 officials attended the launch, including Gen. Ahn's descendants, Navy Chief of Staff Boo Suk-jong and DSME officials.
Meanwhile, the first 3,000-ton submarine Dosan Ahn Chang-ho is expected to be operationally deployed around the end of the year.