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Published: 18:02, September 08, 2021 | Updated: 16:47, September 15, 2021
ROK blazes new path with 'most potent' conventional missile sub
By Reuters
Published:18:02, September 08, 2021 Updated:16:47, September 15, 2021 By Reuters

This handout photo taken on Aug 13, 2021 and provided by the Republic of Korea's Defense Ministry on Sept 7, 2021 shows the locally-developed, diesel-powered 3,000-tonne Dosan Ahn Chang-ho submarine during its commissioning ceremony on the southern island of Geoje, ROK. The country is said to have test-fired a ballistic missile from the submarine. (HANDOUT / SOUTH KOREAN DEFENSE MINISTRY / AFP)

SEOUL - The Republic of Korea (ROK)'s development of a conventional submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) is a ground-breaking move, analysts said, with implications for the Democractic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), the US alliance, and even the prospect of nuclear weapons in ROK.

Last week, ROK conducted ejection tests of the SLBM from its recently launched Dosan Ahn Chang-ho KSS-III submarine, Yonhap news agency reported, showcasing a unique capability. It is the only nation to field such weapons without nuclear warheads. 

ROK conducted ejection tests of a conventional submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) from its recently launched Dosan Ahn Chang-ho KSS-III submarine last week, Yonhap reported. It is the only nation to field such weapons without nuclear warheads

Seoul says the conventionally armed missile is designed to help counter any attack by DPRK. Analysts say the unusual weapon also checks many other boxes, including reducing ROK's reliance on the United States and providing a foundation if it ever decided to pursue a nuclear arsenal.

ROK's defense ministry declined to confirm the tests, but said it is pursuing upgraded missile systems to counter DPRK.

ALSO READ: Official: S. Korea launched first ballistic missile from submarine

ROK's sub-launched missile, believed to be a variant of the country's ground-based Hyunmoo-2B ballistic missile, with a flight range of about 500 kilometers, is smaller than the SLBMs developed by DPRK.

H.I. Sutton, a specialist in military submarines, said the South's technology is more advanced, however, and called the combination of an SLBM with the submarine's quiet Air Independent Propulsion system a potential "game changer".

"In these respects it is the most potent conventionally powered and armed submarine in the world," he wrote in a report for Naval News.

ROK's SLBM is one of a wide range of conventional missiles that the country is developing to augment its "Overwhelming Response" doctrine, said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The doctrine is an operational plan for strikes to pre-empt a DPRK attack.

Although submarine-launched ballistic missiles are usually associated with nuclear weapons, that does not mean ROK has them or is pursuing them, he said.

READ MORE: S. Korea says it is developing more powerful missiles

"However, should the alliance with the United States fray in the future or South Korea's national defences needs drastically shift, these SLBMs would provide an immediately available foundation for a limited, survivable nuclear force," he added.

The ROK is also referred to as South Korea, and DPRK as North Korea.

A political issue

For now it is just an academic debate, but one that has made its way into the current ROK presidential campaign, with some conservative candidates arguing that the country should seek a nuclear deterrent either on its own or by hosting American weapons, as some NATO allies do.

The United States removed its battlefield nuclear weapons from ROK in 1991, but has continued to protect its ally under a "nuclear umbrella".

But recent years were tumultuous for the US-ROK alliance, with then-US President Donald Trump pressing Seoul to pay more for the American military presence there, and even suggesting that countries, including ROK and Japan, may need to develop their own nuclear weapons.

READ MORE: DPRK slams end to US guidelines on ROK missile range

The SLBM program doesn't appear to be part of elaborate plan to hedge toward nuclear weapons, said Joshua Pollack, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

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