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KIMS Periscope

KIMS Periscope No. 311

The Future of Sea Power and South Korea

Royal Danish Defence College
Dr Ian Bowers

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the confluence of two significant elements in contemporary warfare. One, that technology and innovation can have a substantial impact at the tactical levels of war and two, that despite technology, war, particularly between peers and near peers, remains a brutal endeavour where mass and will are enduring and immutable qualities. This raises a question about the future of sea power and the trajectory of contemporary and future force development.

For South Korea, the sea is a warfighting domain of extreme importance. South Korean sea power has a lasting deterrent effect along the maritime boundary between North and South Korea and will play a vital supporting role should war break out. Moreover, given the geostrategic environment of East Asia, the seas of the region will be the primary arena of conflict between China and the U.S. and its allies. Hence, how South Korea chooses to develop, generate and exercise its future sea power will be of increasing importance to the relative security of the state. This article describes some of the determinants of the future of sea power and argues that South Korea is in a prime position to emerge as a leading sea power in the 21st century.

Framing the future of Sea Power

Framing our understanding of sea power is an important exercise. In a broad context, the sea power of a state is almost anything that produces effects at sea. This could include commercial shipping, oil and gas platforms, pipelines and undersea cables. Narrowing our framing to the military realm, what is included is any platform or system that can create a military effect at sea. This should normally start with navies but could also include aircraft, unmanned systems, shored-based weapons and sensors, cyber effects and high-end enablers such as satellites.

Synergy between military capabilities at sea and on the land or in the air has always existed albeit in often limited and ad-hoc ways. While joint warfare has long been an ambition of modern militaries, it is often difficult to enact in a sustained and often collides with individual service priorities and cultures.

However, developments in warfighting concepts, doctrine and technology have made the development of a holistic warfighting approach to sea power ever more important. No longer should we frame the military exercise of sea power as solely the preserve of navies, but rather the integration and synchronization of assets operating in and from different domains.

This development is already been seen in the United States. The US Army’s latest operational level, Multi-Domain Operations doctrine includes a section on the maritime arena. Meanwhile, the US Marines are repurposing to have a greater effect at sea by integrating kinetic systems with both organic and external sensors and command and control networks. In essence, all of the US service branches are seeking ways to work better together to create more effective and efficient effects at sea. Similarly, China is developing a series of capabilities at sea, in space, on the land and in the air that can conceptually apply substantial power at sea.

What this means for sea power is that force development can no longer resemble a shopping list of multifunctional platforms. Instead, those seeking to pursue sea power be it in their littorals or further beyond should develop an integrated operating concept that embraces effects created from multiple domains and by extension multiple services.

Some Tenets of Future Sea Power

In 2022, despite an overwhelming superiority in surface platforms, the Russian navy lost sea control or the ability to operate freely in the Black Sea. Ukraine leveraged land-based missile systems to sink the Russian Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva, thereby denying Russia the ability to maintain a clear picture of the operating environment and used innovative unmanned systems to pin the remainder of the Russian Fleet in their bases.

This speaks to a key truth of naval warfare and the application of sea power. Namely, shore-based assets can always impact platforms operating in the littorals. Further, the distance at which littoral states can hold navies at risk is growing. This is due to the proliferation of long-range precision systems combined with cheap intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms such as drones which mean that establishing and exploiting sea control in contested seas and littorals will be an increasingly risky prospect.

It also highlights that the offence continues to dominate at sea. While the balance between offensive and defensive is not static, in contemporary naval warfare, those who strike first are more likely to win. This will likely remain true as new offensive capabilities including armed and swarming drones, cyber weapons and hypersonic missiles proliferate and challenge the ability of any navy to achieve sea control for any sustained period.

The dominance of the offence does not mean, however, that war at sea will be a brief affair. Rather, it will likely initially be short and sharp but then slow down as all sides regroup. As with many conflicts between peers or near peers the side that regenerates its forces fastest, be they ships, aircraft or weapons, is the one that will more likely win.

This reality highlights two vital characteristics of sea power that many western navies lack. Namely, mass and the ability to replace platforms matter greatly to those seeking to achieve effects in contested waters. Once a ship is lost, it is very difficult not only to replace the platform but also the crew. While navies have shrunk both due to budget cuts and operational efficiency savings emerging from increased multifunctionality, the reality is that peer warfare at sea will likely be resource intensive. Navies that are reliant on a few highly advanced platforms could find themselves in a sub-optimal position as even single platform losses may result in a substantial decrease in warfighting potential.

Limited production and maintenance facilities for both high and low-end warships magnify this problem. Contemporary warships take time to build, and repair and even longer to design. Therefore, replacing or repairing vessels is an expensive and long-term process that limits navies’ ability to reconstitute themselves during war. This will place more pressure on other assets such as aircraft to create effects at sea thereby altering the nature of those effects and by extension the characteristics of a state’s sea power.

A further element that should be drawn from Ukraine is the massive number of long-range precision-guided munitions that have been expended and the reported relative effectiveness of air defences in intercepting them. Although these munitions have had terrible consequences in terms of lives being destroyed, we have also learned that a large number of munitions need to be fired if operational or strategic effects are to be achieved. Consequently, while navies need mass in platforms, if they want to project credible power onto land or even against other sea targets navies also require mass in fires. This is something that many navies have ignored in the years after the Cold War, particularly in Europe.

It is possible that technology could mitigate some of the downsides related to a lack of mass. It is undoubtedly true that unmanned air, surface and sub-surface systems will play an increasing role in the application of sea power and may act as a force multiplier in future conflicts. In the short term, unmanned systems will likely proliferate in the fields of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and mine countermeasures (MCM).

Outstanding problems in terms of maintenance, power, communications and command and control will likely constrain the more advanced uses of unmanned platforms over the short to medium term. Moreover, these systems can never fully replace manned naval platforms. Navies do not only conduct warfighting but also have a range of other tasks such as maritime security, search and rescue and diplomatic functions that require a crew. Technology will solve some navies’ problems when it comes to mass, but in the near future, the naval element of sea power will rely on manned platforms.

This forces us to another conclusion to mitigate specific weaknesses the future exercise of sea power will be collective in nature. In Europe for example, NATO and its partners will need to work ever more closely together to maximise effects. Technologies for this do this exist in the form of data links and common systems yet national caveats, classification rules and other tactical and strategic restrictions limit the ability to fully achieve this. This problem is arguably magnified in East Asia, where doctrines and technologies are not always codified across allies and the tyranny of distance often reduces the effectiveness of collective sea power.

The Future of Sea Power and South Korea

Predicting the future is always a difficult exercise. The fact that peer or near-peer war at sea has not occurred in recent history further hinders our ability to assess what will affect the future application of sea power.  Nevertheless, this piece has drawn upon contemporary trends to highlight the developmental trajectory that states will need to follow to maintain their ability to apply effectively military power at sea. Using these trends, it becomes apparent that South Korea is in a prime position to become a leading sea power should policymakers and force developers choose.

As argued in the introduction, South Korea operates in a heavily contested maritime environment. North Korea poses a constant, evolving and interconnected land and sea threat while the implications of China’s sea power will place a premium on South Korean sea power for deterrence, defence and alliance management.

Fortunately, South Korea has many of the foundations of effective sea power. Although joint warfare has proven difficult for the South Korean military, the establishment of a joint strategic command to manage the threat of North Korea’s WMD in combination with its established multi-service capabilities demonstrates that South Korea can develop, fund and operationalize advanced operational concepts. Indeed many of the same ISR and strike capabilities being used to counter North Korea’s nuclear weapons could also be used at sea. It is a requirement of future South Korean sea power for a joint operating concept to be developed that would draw in assets from multiple domains to create maximum effects at sea.

Vitally, the ROKN does not suffer as severely from the problems of mass that many western counterparts do. Not only does the ROKN possess a large and diverse fleet of ships and submarines, but South Korea also maintains large and effective shipbuilding capacities and an increasingly advanced arms industry. This provides South Korea with substantial redundancy in a time of war and a growing ability to independently field advanced weapon systems. Moreover, the majority of ROKN vessels possess the ability to strike land targets for tactical, operational and strategic effects. This makes the ROKN one of the most effective littoral power projection conventional forces at sea.

Finally, as a US ally, South Korea has the world’s most powerful naval partner. However, reciprocity in the relationship is required to take full advantage of having the US Navy as an ally. This requires South Korea to expand its understanding of sea power and use its navy and other assets further afield than the littorals of the peninsula to advance Washington’s priorities beyond those of North Korea.

Ultimately, South Korea possesses all of the ingredients to become a leading sea power. Yet the decision must be made to embrace the advantages that South Korea has built over the years and build a comprehensive approach to the future application of sea power.

Ian Bowers an associate professor at the Institute of Military Operations at the Royal Danish Defence College. He is the lead researcher and director of their Multi-Domain Operations program. He also specialises in the future operational environment, sea power, deterrence and South Korean security.

  • The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of KIMS. 

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