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MH-60R Seahawk Helicopters: Delayed Torpedo Threatens South Korean Navy

South Korea’s Plan to Combat the Threat of North Korean Submarines
Concerns Surrounding the Deployment of MH-60R Helicopters

[사진자료] 미 해군 MH-60R (1)
There are concerns that the MH-60R maritime operation helicopters, which the South Korean Navy plans to introduce and operate as early as the first half of this year, maybe deployed in operations without their key armament, torpedoes. The picture shows the MH-60R maritime operation helicopter operated by the U.S. Navy. / Provided by Lockheed Martin

The South Korean Navy, planning to roll out MH-60R Seahawk maritime operation helicopters from this year until 2025 to combat the growing threat of North Korean submarines, faces a significant setback. These helicopters risk deployment in anti-submarine operations for an extended period without their key strike weapon, torpedoes.

The maritime operation helicopters, being introduced at a cost of nearly KRW 1 trillion ($840 million), face the risk of being relegated to a half-weapon system. They might only be used for detection, lacking the means to strike.

Timeline and Progress of the Maritime Operation Helicopter Project

According to military and government sources on the 2nd, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration and the Navy, which have been conducting the second phase of the maritime operation helicopter project, will acquire the first MH-60R from the U.S. government during the first half of this year. Subsequently, they plan to bring in 12 units until 2025 to counter the increasing threat of North Korean submarines, including submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

The project to bring in the helicopters is currently proceeding smoothly. Still, a red light has been turned on to introduce the key armament MK-54 lightweight torpedo, which will be introduced with the helicopter.

MK-54 lightweight torpedo is being launched from a U.S. Navy ship. / Captured from Raytheon’s website

Initially, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration planned to mount the MK-54 lightweight torpedo from Raytheon on the MH-60R and pushed ahead with the project. Accordingly, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) of the United States approved the sale of a weapons system worth a total of $130 million, including 31 MK-54 lightweight torpedoes, recoverable training torpedoes, support equipment, and parts, to Korea on July 15, 2022.

Global Supply Chain Issues Impacting Torpedo Introduction

However, it has been reported that the introduction of the MK-54 in Korea will be possible as early as 2029 due to global supply chain problems that have continued for several years since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

Accordingly, there are concerns that the effect of introducing the MH-60R, which was expected to enhance the Navy’s anti-submarine capability from this year greatly will be halved. Even if the MH-60R, which is being introduced immediately, detects a North Korean submarine at sea, there is no proper means to respond without a torpedo.

About this, a Defense Acquisition Program Administration official said, “I understand that the delay in the supply of the MK-54 lightweight torpedo is a problem worldwide,” and “However, the torpedoes to be introduced in Korea are scheduled to be introduced in 2025, so I judge that there will be no problem.” However, this official refrained from speaking about a specific solution to the problem of the delayed introduction of torpedoes, only mentioning that “the project team will come up with a solution.”

Consideration of Blue Shark Lightweight Torpedo as a Solution

A Super Lynx helicopter of the Korean Navy is launching a lightweight torpedo, Blue Shark, developed with domestic technology. / Archive photo

Within and outside the military, there’s active discussion about arming the MH-60R with the Blue Shark lightweight torpedo. Developed entirely with independent technology by the Agency for Defense Development (ADD) and involving LIG Nex1, the Blue Shark is considered a potential solution to the delayed introduction of the MK-54.

Should this occur, the 12 MH-60Rs planned for introduction through this project and the MH-60Rs slated for the Maritime Operation Helicopter-II project might be equipped with the domestic weapon Blue Shark. This decision impacts about 20 units approved for overseas purchase at the Defense Project Promotion Committee meeting on the 29th of last month.

In addition, the path to exporting the Blue Shark to countries currently operating the MH-60R, such as Saudi Arabia, Australia, India, Denmark, and Greece, as well as countries that will operate it in the future, will also open.

However, as the second phase of the maritime operation helicopter project progresses through the U.S. government’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) method, additional negotiations between the Defense Acquisition Program Administration and the U.S. government are essential. Moreover, integrating Blue Shark weapons will inevitably incur additional costs.

By. Seok Jong Lee

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