Outside the Asia-Pacific region, few headlines have featured the recent, rapid modernization of the Republic of Korea (ROK) Navy. The U.S. Navy and other Asia-Pacific maritime services, however, clearly see how the Korean naval waterfront has changed. New, impressive platforms with the latest search/detection/track equipment and modern weaponry are present not only in Korean ports, but increasingly throughout the region, at Pearl Harbor, in the Indian Ocean, and beyond. How quickly this force-structure modernization occurred has been nothing short of extraordinary. But with that transition in such a compressed time, challenges are sure to emerge.
Can a naval force that has upgraded its hardware and capabilities so quickly in response to new missions keep up with associated manpower and training requirements? What are those new requirements? What impact does this rapid transition have on the ROK Navy’s maritime partnership with the United States?
A close examination of the details of the ROK Navy’s new direction will reveal additional changes necessary for Korea to fulfill its intent to become a regional maritime power and not just a presence. It can also identify opportunities on how the ROK Navy can significantly elevate its current level of interoperability with U.S. naval forces and strengthen the ROK-U.S. maritime partnership.
Three transitions are occurring simultaneously:
• A force structure previously limited to littoral/coastal operations to one designed for blue-water operations
• Preparation for operating in the blue-water environment
• Restructuring Korea’s naval partnership with the United States.
The first transition is well on its way to completion. The third—defined largely in the recently delayed transfer of wartime operational-control initiative (in June 2010 the transfer that was to occur in April 2012 was rescheduled for December 2015)—goes beyond the scope of this discussion. The focus here is on the second transition, closely examining the challenges and related opportunities presented by the blue-water operations.
A Brief ROK Navy History
Korea traces its naval history to the late 4th century, well before the storied turtle ships of Admiral Yi Sun-sin in the 16th century. Admiral Yi’s ships have an iconic stature with the Korean people, and the navy headquarters building is adorned with historic artwork depicting them in action.
South Korea recognizes 11 November 1945 as its navy’s birthday. The oldest of the country’s military services, it emerged from the Korean War as a coastal/littoral force with limited capability and mission. Its focus was solely on North Korean maritime activities, and it remained that way until well into the 1980s. As South Korea experienced extraordinary economic development over the past 25 years, its navy has had to make corresponding mission changes and subsequently a modernization of forces.
During the 1980s South Korea began building Ulsan-class frigates and Pohang-class corvettes to replace platforms obtained earlier from the United States. In the mid-1990s, ROK leadership announced its commitment to develop a blue-water navy capable of protecting the nation’s expanding commercial fleet and associated sea lines of communication. Soon thereafter, the navy introduced indigenous KDX-I and -II destroyers, Type 209 submarines, and a P-3 Orion squadron to its fleet. That force took on greater definition after then-President Kim Dae-jung announced in 2001 the development of a strategic mobile fleet, not unlike U.S. amphibious task forces. Such units have historically proved to be effective national assets when emerging as part of a globally engaged maritime nation.
The 2007 introduction of a premiere expeditionary-warfare platform, the ROKS Dokdo, and the navy’s first Aegis-equipped KDX-III destroyer were major steps for South Korea and brought them into an entirely new league of maritime capability. In terms of its maritime relationship with the United States, the ROK Navy is essentially making a transition from being under the U.S. Navy umbrella to becoming an integral component of it.
Adding between two and five more Aegis platforms, up to nine air-independent-propulsion Type 214 submarines, an additional P-3 squadron, a modernized expeditionary-warfare support structure, and one or two more large-deck platforms will round out an aggressive naval modernization program most recently defined under Korea’s Defense Reform Plan 2020.
Exercising the Forces
Platforms themselves mean little unless they are manned with well-equipped, trained, and practiced crews. The military partnership, as defined in the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, provided a framework for bilateral exercises and operations throughout the years. As both maritime forces evolved through changing force structures and capabilities, exercises such as Foal Eagle (begun in 1961), Rim-of-the-Pacific (RIMPAC, joined by the ROK Navy in 1990), Korean Incremental Training Plan (1999), and numerous other joint endeavors were used to develop capabilities and combined-forces interoperability.
The scope of those exercises evolved as well. Foal Eagle and the Incremental Training Plan now span the full range of expeditionary-warfare operations. Recent RIMPAC events had ROK Navy leaders in tactical command of multinational antisubmarine warfare units. These exercises will continue to evolve as platforms change and opportunities for increased interoperability emerge.
The ROK Navy’s ongoing changes have been shaped largely by South Korea’s foreign military sales (FMS) relationship with the United States. In the past 14 years, South Korea has emerged from being essentially a non-player in the U.S. FMS program to one of its largest customers, spending more than $12 billion while building many of the new naval surface platforms in Korean shipyards. Most of those resources fund purchases of major U.S. naval weapon systems, while a small fraction goes into U.S. defense learning institutions.
Each year, dozens of ROK personnel attend surface-warfare courses, submarine training, P-3 simulator training, expeditionary warfare schools, service support courses, the Naval Postgraduate School, and other professional military education outlets. More than 115 ROK officers have attended Navy/Marine Corps professional military education institutions in the United States over the past 25 years, and 155 Korean naval officers have attended Naval Postgraduate School. Introduction of the Aegis program into the ROK Navy includes an entirely new level of systems and technical training for incoming crews to prepare for operating their new platforms.
What Are the Challenges?
While the future looks bright on the surface for the ROK Navy, the rapid transition to 21st-century maritime weaponry and open-ocean missions comes with additional challenges that the ROK Navy, and by alliance association, the U.S. Navy, must address.
The modern U.S. Navy has always depended on a well-trained, highly motivated, career-oriented core of petty and chief petty officers to run its ships. As weapons became more technical and capable, so did the Sailors. Bluejackets start their careers with thorough training and quickly move into positions of responsibility that expand even more quickly as one advances up the ranks. The manning system is designed to attract top high-school talent, push the motivational button within an individual, channel that motivation, and develop the high achiever in a team environment. The Navy could not operate today’s weapon systems, schools, staffs, or facilities without such Sailors.
Today’s conscript-fed ROK Navy is designed to support its older naval force. South Korean sailors historically enter the fleet with less training than their U.S. counterparts and receive minimal assignment of responsibility once on board. Its enlisted manning program is not known for promoting upward mobility. Modern naval platforms designed for smaller crews depend more than ever on technologically savvy sailors who will carry warfighting and leadership skills back to sea later in their careers after training their replacements between sea-duty assignments.
To man modern platforms with qualified crews throughout ships’ life cycles, the ROK Navy will need to change its enlisted manning system. Leadership recognizes this requirement, and progress is being made. In recent years senior ROK Navy leaders have visited U.S. Navy training sites at Great Lakes, Newport, Dahlgren, and Pensacola in part to observe the U.S. enlisted-force training process. ROK sailors have begun attending Recruit Division Commander training, the Senior Enlisted Academy, and Aegis training pipelines.
The new force structure is an ideal foundation for attracting high-caliber recruits with the promise of receiving top technical training, manning the latest in maritime weapon systems, and seeing the world. But changing the nature of an enlisted force and the process for producing a steady stream of technologically skilled sailors ready for action on the high seas, in a cost-effective manner, is a major challenge.
Even with the most advanced naval architecture, navigation, and command-and-control systems in place, nothing replaces experience gained from sustained operations in the unforgiving open-ocean environment. The most experienced mariners still learn important lessons during every at-sea venture. Crossing oceans and taking the battle to the enemy (or lifesaving material to the disaster-stricken) are experience-based skills. Having the platforms in place to conduct such operations is the first step. Eventually, the new shine wears off, parts break, and commanders are faced with unforeseen situations.
While the ROK Navy increases open-ocean experience for its crews each year, their senior and junior ranks currently have limited deep-water credentials. Critical lessons remain to be learned as the ROK expands its reach beyond its home peninsula. These very lessons are being learned through Korea’s continuous deployment of naval platforms conducting antipiracy operations with multinational forces under CTF-151 in the Gulf of Aden and the Somali Basin.
Not all lessons must be learned the hard way. Today’s U.S. Navy training was forged from a long history of blue-water operations. Training on Surface Warfare Officer School shipboard simulators, the Recruit Training Center’s Battle Stations model, firefighting and damage-control trainers, and numerous other simulated high-risk training environments implement critical lessons learned from the past. Even seasoned officers selected for command at sea must master lengthy training pipelines based on the Navy’s most difficult maritime experiences.
The ROK Navy is sending growing numbers of its ranks through U.S. Navy courses that include such training. Embedded is the Navy’s risk-management-based decision-making processes for high-risk training and operations. That is no substitute for at-sea experience but can reduce the gap between novice and learned sailor.
An advantage of sharing similar weapon systems with partner nations is the opportunity to approach maritime doctrine and tactical scenarios in like manner. South Korea and the United States share a growing commonality in such systems, including Aegis platforms, Harpoon, SM-2, and AIM-9 missiles, P-3s, helicopter large decks, Link 11/Link 16, and landing-craft air-cushion platforms. But platform standardization is only a starting point.
Tactical skills are developed incrementally through quality training, participation in well-staffed and prepared exercises, and real-time experience. New U.S. Navy officers and Sailors go through intense tactics and weapon training before their first sea-duty assignment, and when returning to subsequent sea duty. The toughest tactical training experiences are often reserved for prospective commanding and executive officers. And every warfare community sends its deploying units through rigorous tactical team assessments as part of the pre-deployment process.
By comparison, ROK Navy crews man their new, extremely capable weapon systems with limited tactical experience and minimal warfighting doctrine. New Aegis crews receive individual and team training as part of the foreign military sales package. But they require time, resources, and experience to gain proficiency. With new expeditionary-warfare platforms, merging South Korean Navy and Marine units into an efficient power-projection force will require a new approach to mission doctrine. The current U.S.-South Korea maritime exercise regime will serve the ROK Navy well in advancing interoperability and skill levels, yet significant tactical-skills gaps will remain for some time.
Some cost-effective methods can expedite closing those gaps. Each U.S. Navy community is blessed with outstanding tactical training infrastructure, the latest in tactics development/analysis, and seasoned instructors. The Joint Expeditionary Warfare trainer, Aegis tactical-team trainers, submarine attack-center trainers, and P-3 tactical simulators can all be used for more than initial indoctrination and building basic skills. These assets can be employed on an annual basis in conjunction with exercise cycles to expedite ROK Navy tactical-skill development.
As new platforms became operational and were integrated into exercise scenarios, ROK naval leaders began to gain a good sense of the learning curve faced by their officers and sailors. Seeing the wartime-missions transfer looming, their training requests have shifted to more advanced levels: integrated antisubmarine warfare operations, more complex expeditionary warfare missions, common data-link operations, and advanced training in maritime support missions. Requests for operational staff officer training have become a priority. For several years ROK Navy submarine and P-3 crews have travelled to Hawaii for dedicated crew-training events using U.S. Navy assets. But as the press for advanced tactical training continues, the next issue becomes evident.
The Crush of U.S. Navy Bureaucracy
The bureaucracy works against timely development of new ROK Navy capabilities in two ways. First is the process for opening higher levels of warfare training to partner nations. The same red-tape challenges so well described by retired Captain Sam Tangredi (Defense News, 10 November 2008, “Winning the Soft War”) in reaching technology transfer agreements with the Navy’s international partners apply to requests for classified training. When the U.S. Navy receives partner-nation requests for training that include cutting-edge material, the approval process goes into slow motion—for some valid reasons, including requests for courses that contain classified information. But there are equally valid reasons to simplify and expedite the approval process for regional allies who have shared common security interests with us for more than 50 years, and have a long history of combined forces and operations.
In this case, South Korea has also made a steep investment in U.S. weapon systems and positioned itself to become a maritime partner of similar capability. If the United States is willing to equip the ROK Navy with its most modern weapons, it shouldn’t make the training process so difficult that it precludes the South Koreans from reaching levels of proficiency that support U.S. objectives of interoperability. That step should be virtually automatic, not subject to a laborious, time-consuming process.
The second issue here is much broader in scope and addresses the hierarchy that exists to make the U.S. Navy–ROK Navy relationship work. Clearly this maritime partnership can be described as positive, effective, and cooperative, and that opinion is shared by senior U.S. Navy staffs throughout the Pacific region. Those staffs work policy, current operations, exercises, and all the defense issues that support U.S. national objectives with respect to South Korea. But as the ROK Navy continues its steady progress in developing into a regional maritime force, theater staff members for the most part move on after their brief tours of duty, and few have the opportunity to see the full range of advancing mission capability or understand the depth of change occurring.
Aegis platforms handle several missions, as does the submarine force. Expeditionary warfare encompasses a number of communities, as do command-and-control and data-link activities. No single U.S. staff in the theater appears to have a full grasp of South Korea’s naval progress or the challenges associated with those advances. The result is an uncoordinated approach to address the issues of a changing enlisted force, the need for training in open-ocean operations, and the development of advanced maritime warfighting skills.
Successes have been independent. The theater operational submarine staff works regularly with Naval Submarine Training Center Pacific to address ROK Navy submarine-training requirements and pursue opportunities for more effective interoperability. ROK Navy special forces units are developing a more integrated training and operational relationship with their U.S. Navy counterparts.
The U.S. and ROK mine-warfare communities have a long history of joint operations and professional dialogue. In 2009, the ROK Navy’s expeditionary-warfare operational staff visited Naval Amphibious Base Coronado to consider tactical air control squadron training opportunities. Training of South Korean air-intercept controllers in U.S. Navy facilities commenced in 2008. In summer 2010 South Korea’s first Aegis platform, the ROKS Sejong the Great, successfully completed U.S. combat systems ship- qualification trials. One would be hard pressed to find a U.S. Navy office tracking these advances. And virtually every initiative requires its own disclosure process, which requires sharing of classified information.
Bridging the Communications Gap
After the tragic sinking of the ROKS Cheonan in March 2010, U.S. and South Korean attention will undoubtedly focus on antisubmarine warfare. But the current situation is prime for a strategic approach to address ROK Navy requirements and enhance interoperability between navies. The advantages are clear in having a single U.S. Navy staff with the complete picture of South Korean naval modernization and working U.S. support for developing mission capabilities. Integrating foreign military-sales efforts, regional warfare commander activities, and training initiatives into a single plan offers considerably greater returns-on-investment than what the status quo can provide.
Annual exercises and operations could be supported by training events at U.S. naval learning centers to develop a tactical training cycle similar to Navy deployment workup cycles. Tactical proficiency could be attained in an accelerated, incremental manner. Warfare community relationships could develop more effectively as joint events multiply and build on each other.
Trust and initiative should flow in both directions. When dialogue between the two navies occurs, and those opportunities are many, South Korean leadership and staffs need to be forthcoming with their direction, capabilities, and requirements. ROK Navy staffs are not shy with requests for training, but too often those requests are made without a clear identification of actual requirements. In most instances this reflects a lack of effective doctrine for executing new missions in new environments using this new force structure.
Thus, ROK Navy personnel are simply unsure of their training requirements, and that’s when open, effective, and regular dialogue is needed. The Naval Warfare Development Command and professional-military-education institutions such as the Naval War College, U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and the Naval Postgraduate School are environments in which doctrinal discussion can greatly assist our ROK Navy partners. Two-way communication among military minds and a willingness to publish one’s thoughts on strategy, policy, doctrine, and tactics are tools that can and should help shape tomorrow’s defense forces for one’s country. The U.S. Navy, for its part, has a maritime partner in need of direction and eager to learn. Eventually, South Korea will have to build training infrastructure and doctrine-development institutions suitable for its new force and missions. But for the present, a major void must be filled.
When Bullets Fly
As any combat veteran will confirm, the final training events don’t begin until bullets and bombs are flying. Perhaps the toughest lessons to learn, especially for the commander, are ones that develop situational awareness under combat and skills for effective decision-making in the proverbial fog of war. No amount of training or exercise will fully prepare an individual or a unit for this environment. But the United States has a generation of seagoing commanders who have learned those lessons, and opportunities to impart that wisdom to fellow commanders in the ROK Navy need to be created.
The day has arrived when South Korea can launch a strategic mobile fleet with surface-warfare firepower and an expeditionary-warfare capability along with submarine and maritime aviation patrol support. Their navy’s motto, “To the Sea, to the World,” reflects the direction their fleet is headed.
The ROK Navy has taken extraordinary steps to reach this position, and the maturing process will go on no matter the level of U.S. involvement. Its turn to take the leadership role during wartime events in the Korean Peninsula region is just around the corner. Should conflict arise in that region, one certainty is that the United States will be engaged in step with this new regional maritime force and should want to guarantee it has been trained and prepared in the manner that maximizes its ever-increasing capabilities.