Friday, May 2, 2008
Malaysia's Chief of Defense Force, General Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Zainal, during his visit onboard ROKS Dokdo during the ship's visit to Malaysia in 2007. Malaysia is known to be actively considering the acquisition of at least one Dokdo class vessel.
The South Korean defense industry's global ambitions have been surfacing in recent years. Recent, ongoing and planned research and development (R&D) and "indigenous" procurement programs have often used export potential as one of the primary justifications for their costly pursuit. The platforms South Korea hopes to export include ground vehicles, jet aircraft, rotorcraft and naval vessels.
With regards to naval vessels, rumors have emerged of overseas interest in South Korea's 4,500-ton Chungmugong Yi Sun-Shin class (KDX-II) and 7,500-ton AEGIS-equipped King Sejong the Great class (KDX-III) destroyers, as well as the 14,000-ton Dokdo class (LPX) landing platform dock vessels. Countries rumored to be interested in one or more of the above platforms have been Malaysia, Australia and Turkey. As evident in the Republic of Korea Navy's (ROKN) activities during certain overseas port visits, the ROKN has also been advertising its vessels on behalf of the defense industry to several governments and navies, including those of Vietnam, India and Egypt.
Certainly, South Korea's shipbuilding industry has played a central role in the ROKN's pursuit of a "blue-water" navy, as the ROKN today consists entirely of South Korean-made vessels with the exception of the first Chang Bogo class submarine, ROKS Chang Bogo, which was constructed in the shipyard of Howaldtswerke Deutsche Werft (HDW) in Kiel, Germany. Since then, South Korean shipyards have so far manufactured 10 German attack submarines -- eight U-209's and two U-214's -- under license from HDW. Seven more U-214's are expected. As for surface vessels, every single one in service today was manufactured by a South Korean shipbuilder, and their orders will in all likelihood grow further over the next decade, as the ROKN pushes ahead with procurement programs for over 20 frigates and even larger number of "next generation" coastal vessels. The total quantities have yet to be confirmed.
While the aforementioned financially-lucrative vessels most likely stand as some of the more sophisticated naval platforms in the world today, South Korea has also been making inroads into smaller markets in less wealthy countries which have acquired second-hand ROKN vessels for prices of around USD 1,000. While practically a give-away, the purpose for doing so has been interpreted as alleviating maintenance costs associated with hardware considered outdated for use by the South Korean military, establishing and strengthening military relations with countries pertinent to South Korea's foreign policy and overseas national interests and to open up potential channels for the future export of first-hand military hardware manufactured by South Korea's growing defense industry. So far, countries which have received second-hand ROKN vessels in recent years have been Bangladesh, Kazakhstan and the Philippines, while negotiations have been ongoing for the transfer of vessels to Cambodia. All vessels included in transactions with the above countries solely involve "small" surface combatants, mostly coastal patrol vessels, or patrol killer (PK) and patrol killer medium (PKM).
While promising potential may exist, South Korea's naval shipbuilding infrastructure has so far churned out only one combat vessel for export, a frigate for Bangladesh in 2001.* This is understandable, as South Korea's history with naval vessels of the more sophisticated architecture began during the 1990's, prior to which the shipbuilding industry spent approximately 15 years developing the necessary manpower and the naval shipbuilding technological base from nearly scratch. In turn, vessels of the aforementioned destroyer and light carrier classes were first launched after 2002. That these vessels are already attracting the attention of aspiring naval powers, many of whom share a common concern in China, is an intriguing development that could provide for a bright future for South Korea's naval ship exports.
For now, a promising indication for the future was hinted in a recent announcement by BAE Systems. BAE announced two months ago that its bidding for an upcoming Royal Navy tanker program will include Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering (DSME) as a key member of its consortium. DSME's role will be to construct the vessels at its shipyard on Geoje Island. If awarded, DSME will most likely become the first-ever non-British contractor in history to manufacture vessels for the storied Royal Navy. As my naval-minded British friends opined, DSME's key advantage may be that it may deliver the ships on time with little or no cost overruns, aspects of naval ship procurement programs with which the Royal Navy, as well as a number of other wealthy navies, have reportedly become unfamiliar.