South Korea Joins Elite Club as the 7th Nation in the World to Possess Submarine-Launched Missiles
Submarine-launched ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) are ballistic missiles launched from submarines submerged in the sea. They are fired from vertical launch tubes installed on the submarine’s hull, powered by solid-fuel rockets. The United States pioneered the development of SLBMs, concurrently enhancing the strategic capabilities of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) like the Skipjack class by adding launch mechanisms to their hulls. Today, countries such as the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and India operate SLBMs.
The U.S. initiated SLBM development in 1955, achieving practical application with the Polaris A-1 in 1960, followed by improved versions A-2 and A-3. The second-generation SLBMs, known as Poseidon, and the third-generation Trident I and II were subsequently practicalized. In response, Russia developed and deployed SLBMs such as the SS-N-4 Sark in 1962, SS-N-5 Serb in 1964, SS-N-6 in 1969, and SS-N-8 in 1973.
Mounted on submarines, SLBMs offer the advantage of being able to freely navigate in any waters and launch from the sea, ensuring stealth compared to ballistic missiles launched from fixed ground bases or transported by bombers. Their ability to approach closely to attack targets provides a shorter range, making them advantageous for penetrating enemy defenses. Additionally, their mobility in launch sites enhances survivability even during enemy strategic offensives, making them highly resilient strategic weapons.
Submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) are a critical component in assessing a nation’s capability to conduct nuclear attacks anywhere, alongside intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), and strategic nuclear bombers.
SLBMs involve mounting ballistic missiles on submarines in a vertical launch configuration. Referred to as the ‘invisible nuclear fist,’ this method is characterized by the submarines stealthily maneuvering in the ocean, making detection and tracking challenging. Notably, SLBMs are considered the most advanced nuclear weapon delivery system due to their difficulty in pre-detection compared to strategic bombers and ICBMs.
The deployment of SLBMs involves precise testing stages, including ejection, ignition, and flight. This requires advanced technological capabilities to complete three stages: ground ejection tests, underwater ejection tests, and submarine-launched tests. Following a successful test launch from a submarine navigating underwater, equipped SLBMs are then deployed for operational use.
South Korea achieved a major milestone in its defense capabilities with the successful underwater test of a domestically developed submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on September 15, 2021. This success positions the South Korean military as the seventh country in the world to possess SLBMs.
The Defense Science Research Institute (ADD) conducted the test at the ADD Anheung Test Range in Taean, Chungnam, launching the SLBM from the 3,000-ton Navy submarine ‘Do San An Chang-ho.’ The missile successfully hit its intended target. The development of SLBM launch technology involves three critical stages: ground ejection tests, underwater ejection tests using a buoyant tube, and finally, actual submarine-launched tests.
The South Korean military achieved success in the first stage, the ground ejection test, at the end of 2020. Subsequently, in the first half of 2021, the second stage involving underwater ejection tests using a buoyant tube was completed. The final and crucial stage, the submarine test launch, was successfully conducted in September 2021.
The United States maintains a triad nuclear force structure consisting of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), strategic bombers, and ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). Recently, the strategic importance of Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) has significantly increased due to their outstanding performance and versatility. Some argue for transitioning from the triad structure to a dual structure, emphasizing strategic bombers and SLBMs. Notably, European military powers like the United Kingdom rely entirely on SLBMs, and France is also known for its high dependence on SLBMs.
SLBMs, deployed on nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) equipped with nuclear warheads, offer a superior level of stealth as they are launched from the vast depths of the underwater. This advantage makes them highly challenging for adversaries to detect and track, increasing the probability of surviving preemptive nuclear attacks. Recognized as a strategic weapon with the capability to conduct a second strike against an adversary, SLBMs are evaluated as an effective nuclear deterrent due to their survivability and precision in targeting. Consequently, SLBMs are considered one of the most powerful strategic weapons in use today
Because of these performances, the second-generation nuclear countries, India and North Korea, are concentrating national capabilities on SLBM development under the pretext of strengthening deterrence while officially declaring a nuclear pre-emptive non-use strategy to the outside world. However, military experts evaluate that it is naive to believe that a nuclear state will use SLBM only for deterrence purposes according to the nuclear pre-emptive non-use strategy officially declared. This is because the temptation of preemptive attack is great because of its enormous power that can give the enemy a tremendous blow.
The utility is further doubled when the capabilities of SLBM and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) are combined and operated strategically. For example, while declaring to deter nuclear attacks with ground-based ballistic missiles, if you take a preemptive attack on military bases with SLBM, the opponent may not be able to prepare properly and the military command may be annihilated.
In particular, a nuclear state with an SLBM can demonstrate military and strategic flexibility. In a geopolitical situation where military tension is high, like India and North Korea, there is a high possibility that SLBM can become a means of preemptive attack at any time. For this reason, the United States, which has the most advanced SLBM capabilities, also regularly conducts training and operational plans to attempt a preemptive attack to neutralize the opponent’s nuclear capabilities, not just nuclear deterrence.
Our military has entered actual deployment after successfully developing a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).
According to military sources, following the successful consecutive test launches of two SLBMs from the 3,000-ton submarine ‘Do San An Chang-ho,’ hitting the target, they have been officially deployed for maritime operations. In the final flight test, SLBMs were launched at approximately 20-second intervals, covering a distance of around 400 km and successfully striking the designated maritime target, marking the operationalization of SLBMs.
The navy’s SLBM operational status includes the submarines ‘An Mu-ham’ and ‘Shin Chae-ho,’ each equipped with six vertical launch tubes for SLBMs. Due to their covert operational capabilities from submarines, SLBMs are highly valued for their strategic significance. Currently, only six countries, including the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and India, operate SLBMs. South Korea joined this exclusive group as the seventh SLBM-operating country in 2021. The military developed the SLBM based on the 500 km-range ballistic missile ‘Hyunmoo-2B.’
According to military sources, plans are in place to equip a total of 78 SLBMs on nine medium-sized submarines, including the first 3,000-ton submarine ‘Do San An Chang-ho’ and additional ones to be constructed. The medium-sized submarines include three 3,000-ton submarines, followed by three 3,600-ton submarines, and three submarines with a displacement of over 4,000 tons. The 3,000-ton submarines are equipped with six vertical launch tubes, while the 3,600-ton submarines can carry up to 10 launch tubes.
By. Hyun Ho Lee