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Navy pushes blue-water operations

South Korea’s chief of naval operations on Thursday vowed to bolster blue-water capabilities to handle not only North Korean threats but also a broader range of maritime challenges from overseas.

During a security forum in Seoul, Adm. Choi Yoon-hee said he would push to change the paradigm of wartime theater operations for the Navy to assume an active, leading combat role. He also stressed the need for a strategic maneuver fleet.

“The Navy will go beyond the current maritime operations concept under which it relies on the U.S. Navy and plays a role to only support ground operations under the allies’ combined defense system,” said Choi.

“It is illogical (for the Korean Navy) to passively operate the current Korea-U.S. operational capabilities. (We) will seek to change the current paradigm by swiftly securing maritime superiority and projecting naval power toward strategic targets.”

The Navy currently would undertake a supporting role in case of a peninsular contingency due in large part to a lack of naval assets while the Army and Air Force would play central roles in any armed conflict.

His remarks marked a shift in the country’s naval policy, which has focused mostly on littoral operations targeting North Korea.

Since the late 1980s, the Navy had used the slogan “blue-water navy” to represent its long-distance operations to protect sea lines of communication and maritime peace in the region and beyond, and secure untapped maritime resources.

But since Pyongyang’s sinking of the corvette Cheonan in March 2010, the Navy has been reluctant to mention blue-water operations to avoid giving the impression that it is neglecting littoral naval defense against the North.

“With bolstered blue-water capabilities, we can launch a guided missile strike from our destroyer to destroy strategic military bases including nuclear facilities in the North in case of hostilities rather than just providing support to ground and aerial operations,” a military official said.

Last year, the Navy began deploying Hyunmoo 3-C ship-to-ground cruise missiles with a range of 500 km to its 4,200-ton destroyers. The Navy is expected to finish deploying the missiles to all designated destroyers in two to three years.

As neighboring countries are vying to secure and expand maritime resources including oil and gas based on their incremental naval might, security experts have called for bolstered naval power.

China has a long-term, consistent maritime operational strategy that covers not only the South and East China seas, but also virtually the entire world by 2050. It put its first aircraft carrier Liaoning into service last year, showing off its maritime ambitions.

Japan has also sought to make its maritime strategy more active to cover broader-range operations apparently to keep China in check and secure its maritime interests, particularly in the spat over a chain of islands in the East China Sea, which is also claimed by Beijing.

South Korea’s Navy, however, has been suffering a shortage of assets for longer-distance missions.

Since the early 1990s, the Navy had pushed to build a maneuver fleet consisting of three combat groups. But it was forced to revise the plan and settle for one combat group in 2005 due to budgetary and political issues.

During the forum, the Navy chief stressed that the plan to construct the fleet should be pushed for again. The Navy hopes to complete its construction by around 2030.

Each combat group consists of two 7,600-ton Aegis-equipped destroyers, two 4,400-ton Helicopter Destroyers and two 5,000-ton Korea Destroyers. Currently, three Aegis destroyers and six DDH destroyers are in operation, while the Navy seeks to start deploying KDD destroyers from 2020.

The toughest sell for the Navy is to secure some 5 trillion won ($4.6 billion) to acquire three additional Aegis destroyers and other key assets. Last year, a budget of 1 billion won was set to begin a project to procure the Aegis warships, but it still remains unclear whether politics and public sentiment will move in favor of the project.

Above all, the toughest task facing the South Korean military is rebalancing its resources among the three armed services.

Some argue that South Korea may have to bolster its ground forces considering that the U.S., its key ally, has been focusing on naval and aerial assets while reducing its focus on ground and marine forces. But others argue that Seoul should follow the global trend under which naval and aerial operations play a key role in battle situations.

By Song Sang-ho (