The 7,600-ton Seoae Ryu Seong-ryong, the Navy's third Aegis destroyer, was put into service on Thursday. The launch at Hyundai Heavy Industries' No. 6 dockyard in Ulsan was watched by military, government and business leaders including Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin.
The Ryu Seong-ryong is the same class as the two other Aegis destroyers, the King Sejong the Great and the Yulgok Yi Yi, already in service.
◆ Naval Power
With three Aegis destroyers in service, the Navy has gained a solid edge over North Korea in terms of naval combat capabilities.
The North has about 420 warships, giving it a huge numerical superiority to the South’s 120. But many of them are small and old, with only three 1,000-2,000-ton ships and none bigger. By contrast, the South now has three 7,600-ton Aegis destroyers and 11 3,000-ton or larger warships.
The Ryu Seong-ryong is equipped with anti-submarine weapons and carries 16 Hongsangeo (Red Shark) Korean-made torpedoes with a range of 20 km, two Lynx anti-submarine helicopters, and Korean-made Chungsangeo (Blue Shark) light torpedoes.
◆ Improved Capabilities
Like the King Sejong the Great, the Ryu Seong-ryong is capable of tracking North Korean ballistic missiles up to 1,000 km away. In April 2009, the King Sejong accurately tracked the trajectory a North Korean long-range missile launched from Musudan-ri in North Hamgyong Province.
Aegis destroyers are tasked to detect ballistic missiles as soon as the North launches them. With three of them, the South can monitor and track any such missiles launched from anywhere in the North.
But they cannot yet intercept incoming ballistic missiles. The military is considering the purchase of SM-6 missiles once the U.S. finishes developing them.
◆ Regional Competition
Asian nations are competing to build Aegis ships. Japan already has six Aegis ships similar to the Ryu Seong-ryong and is building two more, while China has two Lanzhou-class Chinese-style Aegis ships and reportedly plans to increase the number to eight by 2015.
South Korea's Aegis ships are capable of protecting the sea route between Jeju and the Strait of Malacca which serve the transport of strategic materials like crude oil.
◆ Downscaled Plan
In 2007, the Navy forged a far more ambitious plan to build three more Aegis ships, six more 4,500-ton Korean-type destroyers, and one more large Dokdo-class amphibious assault ship by 2020.
But since the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan in the West Sea in March last year, the Navy has been criticized for pushing ahead with extravagant plans to build an ocean-going fleet instead of focusing on protecting the country's own shores, so the plan was downscaled.