North Korea is building a new submarine designed to carry the country's nuclear missiles closer to their targets while keeping them safe from destruction. The newclass of submarine would be Pyongyang's first operational ballistic missile sub. A lack of sophisticated submarine technology, however, means the new submarine probably would be easily detected by U.S. and allied anti-submarine forces.
The new submarine, designated Sinpo-C by the U.S. government, was detected by U.S. intelligence. A U.S. government source revealed its existence to The Diplomat this week. Sinpo-C is assessed as being a diesel-electric powered submarine with a displacement of 2,000 tons and a beam (width) of 36 feet. The sub will carry at least one and perhaps two or more submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
North Korea currently has one ballistic missile submarine (SSB), the Gorae ("Whale"), also known as Sinpo-B by U.S. intelligence. First detected via satellite in 2014, the Gorae displaces 1,700 tons and is capable of launching the Pukguksong-1 missile. The Pukguksong-1 is a two-stage missile with an estimated range of 745 miles.
Most nuclear powers spread out out their nuclear arsenals among different delivery systems. This allows them to take advantage of the fact that submarine-based missiles are easier to hide and can move closer to their targets, while diversifying the arsenal so it's difficult to destroy in a surprise attack. North Korea appears to be spreading its arsenal between KN-08, KN-14, and KN-20 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
The first sub, Gorae, appears to have been a test vessel for the SLBM concept. There is no evidence the sub has ever left North Korean waters and may have just been used to launch missiles. Sinpo-C, a larger boat, may be the first operational North Korean ballistic missile submarine that carries a larger, heavier, longer-ranged missile than the Pukguksong-1.
While North Korea's construction of missile submarines may sound disconcerting, the country's submarine technology is decidedly under par. Unlike the American Ohio-class submarines, which have allegedly never been detected by a hostile power, Sinpo-C will be relatively crude and easy for U.S., Japanese, and South Korean anti-submarine warfare forces to spot. While the submarine represents a theoretical increase in capability, anti-submarine forces such as South Korean Navy P-3C Orion anti-submarine warfare aircraft, Japanese Soryu-class diesel electric attack submarines,, and U.S. Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers are all sophisticated submarine hunters capable of tracking down and killing better submarines than North Korea can currently produce.
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