The Navy's special forces successfully rescued the crew of a South Korean freighter from Somali pirates last Friday, but is one naval destroyer enough to deal with the threat of pirates in the Gulf of Aden?
In March 2009, the 4,500-ton KDX-II destroyer Munmu the Great was dispatched to the pirate-infested waters of the gulf as part of the Cheonghae Unit on a six-month rotation mission. Since the end of December the KDX-II destroyer Choi Young has been deployed there.
Some experts say two or three ships are necessary to effectively thwart pirates and rescue hostages -- a naval support vessel that can operate for extended periods of time more than 10,000 km away from South Korea and at least two ships to engage in diversionary tactics during hostage rescue missions. Japanese, China and Russia have each dispatched two or three vessels for anti-piracy operations on the Gulf of Aden.
But that would be difficult for the Navy. To undertake a long-range mission like the Cheonhae Unit, a 1,000-ton to 2,000-ton vessel is too small. At least a 4,000-ton ship is required. But the Navy has only six KDX-II destroyers with at least 4,000-ton capacity and two Aegis ships with a capacity of 7,600 tons. The two Aegis ships are needed at home to deal with possible North Korean threats, leaving KDX-II destroyers in rotation as the only viable option. And the Navy says it cannot deploy any more vessels since half its KDX-II fleet is already committed to the Gulf of Aden.
It takes around a month for a vessel to move from Naval Operations Command in the southern port city of Busan to the Gulf of Aden, which means that a Korean destroyer spends two months making the trip there and back. And the destroyers need to undergo maintenance once they return to port, meaning three KDX-II vessels are more or less permanently tied to the anti-piracy mission.
Experts say that the Navy should either speed up deployment of 2,300-ton next-generation vessels which are scheduled to be operational against North Korea in 2014, or build separate cheaper ships specifically designed for anti-piracy operations.
Experts also say that the Navy's Lynx helicopters deployed in this weekend's rescue mission of the freighter have limited capacity in terms of passengers and should be replaced with the larger SH-60 Blackhawk helicopters in service with the U.S. military.
Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told reporters on Monday, "We only have six destroyers that are capable of long-distance missions, and this means that the deployment of one more ship could restrict the defense of the Korean Peninsula." Kim told lawmakers he would consider the option of deploying a convoy ship.