South Korea Tests First Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile: A Strategic Deterrent Without Nuclear Weapons?

South Korean media outlets have reported that the country has carried out its first ever test firing of a submarine-launched ballistic missile, which is a modified Hyunmoo 2B missile known as Hyunmoo 4-4. The missiles are expected to be deployed from the country’s Dosan Ahn Changho Class submarines, which are currently still “completing evaluation of the torpedo decoy launch system” before entering device later in the year. The submarines are among the most advanced in the world, and will b the first outside Japan to use a lithium-ion battery-based air-independent propulsion system. Such systems provide greater endurance at high speeds, and allow submarines to charge faster while also extending battery life relative to lead-acid batteries. They are also less bulky and require less maintenance. At 3,000 tons each, they will be South Korea’s largest submarines. 

A submarine launched ballistic missile is a capability no non-nuclear weapons state has pursued, and even nuclear weapons states Pakistan and Israel do not have such a capability. The much greater cost of deploying ballistic missiles from under water is generally seen to only be worthwhile when these missiles are tipped with nuclear warheads for strategic deterrence. This has raised questions regarding the true intentions of South Korea’s missile programs amid growing calls domestically to develop nuclear weapons, with the usefulness and cost effectiveness of a submarine launched missile capability without nuclear warheads being questionable when considering the limited firepower conventionally armed missiles can deliver. South Korea notably sought to develop nuclear weapons during the Cold War, but was prevented from doing so by the United States. The country’s Hyunmoo missiles are thought to be based on Russia’s Iskander platform, and have similar high degrees of precision and manoeuvrability. The future of South Korea’s missile program remains uncertain, but with the country perceiving threats from neighbouring Japan and North Korea, and potentially being caught between the U.S. and China in a potential conflict, it may well go further than expected in developing an independent deterrent capability. 

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