Zachary Keck, Henry Sokolski
An expensive miltiary project with a big downside.
One of the toughest challenges for military allies to sort out is a sensible division of labor when it comes to expensive high-tech weaponry. A case in point is South Korea’s interest in developing extremely expensive nuclear submarines, which also raise nuclear proliferation concerns.
Although South Korea has invested heavily in conventional subs, operating eighteen of the vessels with more on the way, Yonhap News Agency recently reported, “The Moon administration is considering the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines to counter the North’s fleet of around 70 military subs, some armed with ballistic missiles.” The same article noted that Seoul would require that at least one of these submarines would be operating at all times. The main rationale for acquiring nuclear subs (SSNs) is that unlike conventional submarines, which must surface every few days or weeks for air, the nuclear reactors allow SSNs to stay submerged indefinitely. This will allow them to track North Korea’s emerging submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
This capability does not come cheaply. One way South Korea could acquire nuclear submarines is by buying or leasing American-built SSNs. It’s unclear if this option is feasible since the United States has never sold nuclear-powered submarines to another country. Still, assuming that it is, the question becomes how much would this cost South Korea?
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute examined this question in a 2012 report by Andrew Davies. It explored how much it would cost Australia to purchase Virginia-class SSNs from the United States.
According to Davies: