Why is the US sending a nuclear submarine to South Korea?

Seoul, South Korea

When the presidents of the United States and South Korea this week announced a historic agreement to halt North Korean aggression, one element of agreement came to the fore.

The plan to deploy a US nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea for the first time since 1981 was a key act in the unveiling of the “Washington Declaration”, intended to make Pyongyang think twice about launching a nuclear attack on its south. Neighbour

US President Joe Biden said at a news conference at the White House with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, “Our mutual defense treaty is iron clad and it includes our commitment to build a deterrence – and it also includes a nuclear threat, a nuclear deterrent.” is included.” ,

But while the move has great symbolic value, some experts question whether it makes sense as a military move. Some say the submarines are capable enough to hit North Korea from thousands of miles away; Others argue that sending the submarine on a very-public foreign port visit only compromised the effectiveness of a weapon designed for piracy.

Here’s what you need to know about the submarine and why it is headed to South Korea.

The US Navy has 14 Ohio-class, nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), eight of which are based in Washington State and six in Georgia.

The 560-foot submarines, commonly referred to as “boomers”, have a displacement of over 18,000 tons when submerged and are each powered by a single nuclear reactor.

The Navy says an Ohio-class sub is designed to spend an average of 77 days at sea, followed by 35 days in port for maintenance. The sub has two crews – called “blue” and “gold” crews – and are rotated. Hence the 155 submariners in each crew get proper rest and training between patrols.

Ripley USS Mississippi VPX

Board a US nuclear-powered submarine in search of threats from China

Each Ohio-class sub carries a maximum of 20 Trident II ballistic missiles.

They have a range of 4,600 miles (7,400 km), meaning they are capable of hitting a target in North Korea from vast areas of the Pacific, Indian or Arctic oceans.

“Militarily,[these submarines]don’t need to be anywhere near Korea to reach potential targets there,” said Blake Herzinger, a research fellow at the United States Studies Center.

Each Trident missile is capable of carrying multiple warheads TeaThe cap can be directed towards different targets.

The Nuclear Threat Initiative at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies estimates that each Trident missile can carry four nuclear warheads, meaning that each US ballistic missile submarine can carry about 80 nuclear warheads.

In other words, a submarine armed with a Trishul could destroy the whole of North Korea.

An unarmed Trident II D5 missile was test fired from the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Nebraska off the coast of California in 2018.

Analysts say the presence of a US Navy ballistic missile submarine in a South Korean port would be purely symbolic – and would actually reduce the sub’s military value.

“Strategically, (the US and South Korea) are undermining the sub’s most powerful assets; said Carl Schuster, a former US Navy captain and former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center in Hawaii.

One of the keys to nuclear deterrence is uncertainty.

“Nuclear deterrence requires that, although the adversary knows about the existence and scale of a nuclear state’s weapons, it cannot know the exact extent or location of the capabilities or when they might be employed,” US Navy Cmdr. . Daniel Post wrote in January in the journal Proceedings of the US Naval Institute.

A US ballistic missile hidden hundreds of feet below the ocean’s surface, thousands of miles from North Korea, would still be within striking range of Pyongyang, but would be nearly impossible for North Korea to detect.

Shuster said that arriving in South Korea on port visits – which must be arranged 24 to 48 hours in advance – would be far more visible, which would benefit North Korea.

“If Kim Jong Un was looking to launch a surprise attack, we have given him the location and timing of the submarine,” Schuster said.

Analysts say the US wants to reassure one of its most important allies that it has its back.

Kim Jong Un is building North Korea’s nuclear-capable missile forces, testing them at a record rate in 2022. And in a New Year’s Eve speech, the North Korean leader called for an “exponential increase” in his country’s nuclear weapons arsenal. In response to what he claims are threats from South Korea and the United States.

Kim’s threats have prompted some in South Korea to call for Seoul to become a nuclear-armed power itself. The US doesn’t want to see nuclear proliferation on the peninsula, so it is trying to reassure its ally by making its forces more visible in the region, including flying nuclear-capable B-52 bombers in the skies around South Korea.

Kim Jung-sup, senior research fellow at the Center for Defense Studies at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, said the submarine simply illustrates that point and adds to US credibility.

“Of course, they are different types of weapons, but I don’t think there is any essential difference in the fact that they are strategic assets that basically send a message of nuclear retaliation on North Korea,” Kim said.

As for making America’s subscription vulnerable, some analysts say such a scenario would only be a precursor to nuclear war—by which point all would have already failed in their primary mission of deterrence.

“Their basic purpose is to deter and reassure,” said Drew Thompson, a senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

“The ballistic missile submarine and its payload are not intended to be used as tactical weapons.”