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On April 4 South Korean shipbuilding giant Hyundai Heavy Industries contractually delivered yet another submarine as part of an attack class program that started in 1994.  This is the 21st submarine in a planned series of 27 SSKs that will make the Republic of Korea Navy (RoKN) an even more formidable force than it already is.

Named the Shin Chae-ho – after a nationalist scholar and author (1880-1936) known in particular for his resistance to Japanese occupation – the 3,500 tonne boat is among the world’s most advanced conventional diesel-electric submarines.

South Korea has been building submarines in tranches, and Shin Chae-ho is the final one in what is known as the KSS-III Batch 1 program.  The even more advanced KSS-III Batch 2 boats are under construction and the first is on track to be delivered on schedule, in 2028 – though some sources say it might even be delivered two years earlier than that.

A final group of KSS-III Batch 3 submarines is being designed.  These are expected to be even larger than Batch 1 & 2, which are already the western world’s biggest conventional submarines.

The six Batch 1 & 2 boats all have Vertical Launch Systems for a variety of land attack missiles, as well as six torpedo tubes.  All have Air Independent Propulsion giving underwater endurance of +20 days – and the Batch 2 submarines will have improved performance using lithium-ion batteries rather than the lead-acid ones used in earlier generations, including those of KSS-III Batch 1.

For people still struggling with the concept of lithium-ion propulsion, don’t think of KSS-III Batch 2 submarines in outdated terms – think of them as an underwater Tesla that only needs to come close to the surface every three weeks for a quick recharge of its battery pack before silently submerging and continuing its mission.

In contrast, nuclear-powered submarines – such as the ones Australia is rather optimistically hoping to buy – are propelled by giant steam engines that rather than burning coal as a heat source instead use decaying highly enriched Uranium 235.

But getting back to the launch of Shin Chae-ho (SS-086), the ceremony was attended by representatives of nine nations, including Australia’s Director General Submarines, CDRE Michael Jacobson.

According to HHI, the submarine has been built with the latest fuel cell, lead-acid battery propulsion system, and state-of-the-art noise control technologies, boasting significantly improved covert mission capabilities and survivability.

The company says it can be armed with guided missiles, torpedoes, underwater mines, and can fire SLBMs (Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile) from its vertical launch system, making it a key asset for the marine based underwater kill chain system.

The Shin Chae-ho has gone through a 30-month test and evaluation period since its launch ceremony in September 2021. After being delivered to the ROK Navy, the submarine will go through force integration and join missions later in the year.

“I am glad to have this opportunity to share the excellence of our submarines, which have been delivered on time, with the world. We will continue to work with the Government as part of our ‘Team Korea’ effort to stay fully committed and make tangible results in K-defense exports.” said Wonho Joo, Senior Executive Vice President of HD Hyundai Heavy Industries’ Naval & Special Ship Business Unit (NSSBU).

The RoK adopted a crawl-walk-run approach to the SSN project. KSS-I submarines used mainly German technology; KSS-II saw a transition to far greater use of Korean technologies – and the Batch 3 boats are almost entirely Korean.  This has been the result of a 30-year cooperative strategy between local industry, the RoKN and the powerful Defense Acquisition Program Administration.

As well as the submarines themselves, most of the weapons, sensors and various subsystems are almost entirely Korean.

Coincidentally, the RoK and Australia both decided in the mid 1980s to embark an ambitious whole-of-nation endeavor to develop an SSK fleet. At first, Australia sprinted ahead with the launch of the first Collins in 1993. Its specification was for the world’s quietest and most heavily armed conventional submarine, and after well-publicised teething problems – especially with the US combat system – it did indeed achieve those goals. Even today it represents a formidable, if ageing, capability.

But by the early 2000s the pathways diverged. In Australia a sort of torpor set in, encouraged by the nationalisation of the Australian Submarine Corporation at the start of the decade, turning it into an extension of the Department of Finance. The senior management of the company spent several years obsessing about its re-privatisation, which was on track to occur in 2009.

This effort was one of the few – possibly only – failures of then Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner.  When the proposed sale of ASC was brought to Cabinet by Tanner for consideration – for which he was an enthusiastic advocate – Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s national security advisor whispered to him “PM, the Americans won’t like that.” And that was that. And here we are today.

The program to replace Collins known as SEA 1000 – approved in the 2009 White Paper – spluttered and fizzled with a prolonged display of collective incompetence, first involving the purchase of submarines from Japan; then the French-designed retro technology Attack class; and now of course the disastrously expensive exercise to purchase nuclear-powered SSNs from the Anglosphere.

Meanwhile, South Korea plowed on in their relentless, thorough, professional way – and indeed will have 24 SSKs on schedule by 2030 and the full complement of 27 a few years after that.  With earlier submarines well into refit and upgrade programs, Korea has also managed to create an entire ecosystem centred on Hanwha Ocean and HHI with sales to Indonesia and potentially a number of other countries including Poland and Canada.

The contrast with Australia could not be starker.

(Disclaimer: Kym Bergmann travelled to Ulsan as a guest of HHI.)

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Kym Bergmann is the editor for Asia Pacific Defence Reporter (APDR) and Defence Review Asia (DRA). He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism and the defence industry. After graduating with honours from the Australian National University, he joined Capital 7 television, holding several positions including foreign news editor and chief political correspondent. During that time he also wrote for Business Review Weekly, undertaking analysis of various defence matters.After two years on the staff of a federal minister, he moved to the defence industry and held senior positions in several companies, including Blohm+Voss, Thales, Celsius and Saab. In 1997 he was one of two Australians selected for the Thomson CSF 'Preparation for Senior Management' MBA course. He has also worked as a consultant for a number of companies including Raytheon, Tenix and others. He has served on the boards of Thomson Sintra Pacific and Saab Pacific.

19 COMMENTS

  1. thanks Kym,very well written. Today I read there will be further delays re the Virginia class, another three years. Time to give them up and stay with UK only re nuke boats

    In the meanwhile, order some D/E boats which can be constructed at a few shipyards simoultaneously. They can be stationed in Asia, and compliment the SSNs when we get them

  2. Great article again Kym.

    Seems like the AUKUS program is falling further behind and more unlikely to be realised in any credible timeframe, if at all. Beginning to think that the least path of resistance is to simply go along with the UK rather than waiting for the US to honour their commitment. At least that may give us time to put appropriate infrastructure in place here in Australia rather than subsidising US industry for no apparent reason. It would also give us a chance to embed more RAN personnel on nuclear boats for training purposes so they can properly learn their trade.

    Have to admit that the idea of having a few of the ballistic missile capable Korean boats appeals to me as an added capability – at a reasonable cost and build time I would suggest.

    But – always money, crewing and a level of project mismanagement that we seem to have mastered will dictate what the RAN ends up with.

  3. Once again we see what can be achieved with a Defence Ministry working with its Suppliers instead of constantly interfering with them. There has been so much talk of Australia’s urgent need but no real substance has actually been delivered. Our system is obsolete and obviously broken, with Policy and Political expedience taking the place of Strategic Planning and Tactical Assessment.Alas I fear our capability and equipment needs look like arriving just in time for China to take delivery of them

    • Indeed. I’m going to write a detailed article about the KDX destroyer program. The ship currently being trialed is 12,000 tonnes, equipped with Aegis, 128 VLS cells, a big variable depth towed array sonar, embarked MH-60R etc etc. In other words, much more powerful than the Hunter class – by far. The time it took from keel laying to launch – 9 months. That’s not a misprint that’s a 100% correct statement confirmed by the ROKN and the captain of the ship. I’ve walked through it. It exists. I doubt that anyone in the RAN or the Defence establishment has the slightest interest in what can be achieved with a different approach to program management.

      • Kym, I look forward to the KDX article, I must admit it never occurred to me as an option instead of the Hunter , probably because the powers that be seem bent on going through with the Hunter come hell or high water, perhaps if HHI and Austal join up they can bring pressure to bear ( I know , but hope Springs eternal) . As an aside,you mentioned some news on the Apache buy in one of your Podcasts , look forward to hearing more if you get a chance. Keep up the good work.

        • Thanks. The scale and speed of how warships – and submarines – can be built in Korea is astounding. The complete cycle for the KDX is of course a bit longer because it goes: contract-design-build-sea trials – delivery. However, even that is four (4) years. Because both Hyundai and Hanwha Ocean (formerly DSME) have multiple docks and a large, experienced work force they can build ships in parallel. It’s an extraordinary level of capability. Having said that, part of the methodology is that once a customer has signed off on the design, that’s it. You stay out of the way and don’t fiddle with anything – just stand clear and wait for the process to work. Frankly, I don’t believe a customer in the form of the RAN has the self-discipline and maturity to accept such an approach and are more comfortable with the 14 year timetable for the delivery of the first Hunter class.

          • Equipped with top-notch facilities that span roughly 4.9 million square meters in Geoje, including the world’s largest 1-million-ton dock and 900-ton Goliath crane, Hanwha Ocean produces high-quality ships and offshore plants.

            the Ulsan facility is the biggest shipyard in the world. Owned and operated by Hyundai Heavy Industries, the yard extends over four kilometres along the coast of Mipo Bay.

            amazing!

          • they could probably build the RN’s proposed type 83 as well. They appear to be a great ship, but if the buyer is screwed about by local pollies and others, maybe such a vessel could be built in South Korea under licence

  4. Question: Why are any of us surprised either way? Again Australian incompetence and South Korean efficiency and task focused.

  5. The likely non-delivery of Virginias with Osborne built SSN-AUKUSs only operational in the 2050s is tragic. This is occurring at the expense of with budget therefore equipment cuts across Australia’s defence sector.

    The mooted Life of Type Extension (LOTE) for the Collins is mentioned so rarely as a future goal that the LOTE itself may be cancelled.

    The KSS-III might look a viable choice but electoral politics are so important in Australian submarine building that Labor or the Coalition would almost certainly decide that KSS-IIIs would be built in Osborne, South Australia.

    Thus would begin the 15 year cycle from contract signature to first sub launched that bedevilled the Collins and Attack class projects.

    So looking at timelines – around 2032 the US President of the day will decide the US Navy needs all existing and new-build Virginias – THEN the 15 year cycle begins – MEANING Australian built KSS-IIIs would then appear in 2047 – BUT WAIT that collides with Osborne building SSN-AUKUSs.

    So Australia is likely to have a period of NO SUBs after the unLOTED Collins are all retired by 2035 to uncertainty and doubt whether KSS-IIIs should be built at all.

    Other long range strike weapons and highly capable, multi-mission, XLUUVs might avoid this Must be Built in Australia Submarine Valley of Death quagmire.

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