All posts by Paul Pryce

Let Me Get this Strait: The Turkish Straits Question Revisited

Chokepoints and Littorals Topic Week

By Paul Pryce

The Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits, together with the adjoining Marmara Sea, are known collectively as the Turkish Straits and provide the only access between the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea. More than 40,000 vessels passed through these waters in 2019, transporting almost 650 million tons of cargo, and reaffirming the Turkish Straits as one of the most important maritime trade corridors in the world. Additionally, the shores of the Straits – which narrow at some points to as little as 700 meters apart – are home to more than 22 million people, including the historic city of Istanbul.

Since 1936, the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits, hereinafter referred to as the Montreux Convention, has allowed for the peaceful flow of commerce through the Turkish Straits. However, recent calls from Turkish and Russian policy circles for revisions to the Montreux Convention should be cause for concern, as these proposals threaten to either spur a naval arms race in the Black Sea region or look to exploit the Straits as a geostrategic chokepoint.

The Montreux Convention

The Montreux Convention sought to address questions regarding the status of the Turkish Straits that, by the time of the Convention’s writing, had persisted for well over a century, occasionally culminating in violence or near-violence, as in Britain’s effort to wrest control of the Dardanelles in 1922. Among its terms, the Convention stipulates that only littoral states to the Black Sea may transit capital ships (which, if we follow the 1923 Washington Naval Treaty’s definition, refers to “…a vessel of war… whose displacement exceeds 10,000 tons… or which carries a gun with a caliber exceeding 8 inches…”) through the Straits, escorted by no more than two destroyers.

The Bosporus Straits, straddled by Istanbul, are the gateway to and from the Black Sea. (Image: Marine Vessel Traffic)

It also prohibits any country from deploying to the Black Sea more than nine naval vessels displacing a total aggregate of 45,000 tons; it requires that no group of non-littoral states deploy to the Black Sea any naval vessel weighing more than 10,000 tons; and it limits the stay of any vessels from non-littoral states to just 21 days. Littoral states are further obliged under the Convention to inform the relevant Turkish authorities of an intended transit of the Straits by a military vessel at least eight days prior and non-littoral states are obliged to provide 15 days’ notice. Turkey is further empowered to close the Straits to all military traffic in wartime or when under threat of aggression while also denying passage to merchant vessels belonging to countries at war with Turkey.

It is worth noting that Annex II of the Convention specifically excludes aircraft carriers from the definition of a capital ship. This does not extend to any other ship transporting aircraft since, at the time of the Convention’s writing, it was not uncommon for battleships and other military vessels to carry observation aircraft. This may explain the Soviet Union’s unusual designation of its aircraft carriers as ‘aircraft-carrying cruisers’ – for example, the Kiev and Kuznetsov classes. These vessels could fulfill the same strategic function as carriers while still being free to transit the Turkish Straits, even as the Convention denied access to the Black Sea for NATO aircraft carriers due to their explicit designation as aircraft carriers in both name and function.

Though the Montreux Convention has constrained the capacity of NATO support to Ukraine in its struggle against Russian aggression, such as by limiting the number of vessels permitted in the Black Sea as part of Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2), the continued implementation of the agreement is in the national interest of the United States and other non-littoral nations. The United States has long supported the “principle of freedom of transit and navigation” referred to in Article 1 of the Convention and, although it has never ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the United States already abides by UNCLOS as a matter of customary international law.

On the one hand, this seems to suggest that challenging the legitimacy of the Montreux Convention would advance American interests – after all, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled in 1949 that, for vessels transiting the Straits or Corfu, which runs along the coasts of Albania and Greece and which serves as a passage between the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, the concept of innocent passage should prevail over any claims of state control over such strategic waterways. With the Corfu precedent and the customary nature of UNCLOS, one might assume that a legal challenge of the Montreux Convention by a non-littoral state would easily succeed.

But the unique geography of the Turkish Straits makes this legal question far from simple. The Marmara Sea is an internal sea, all the coasts of which belong to Turkey. In the event of a dissolution of the Convention, the ICJ would need to consider whether the Turkish Straits constitute a single strait connecting two open seas, in which case innocent passage prevails, or if they are two separate straits connecting an open sea and an internal sea, in which case Turkey would be able to exert even greater control over the flow of maritime traffic through the Straits. Referring to the Turkish Straits in common parlance – rather than referring separately to the Dardanelles, the Bosporus, and the Marmara Sea – implies a single unit, and the bulk of the maritime traffic has flowed over the past decade between the Aegean Sea and the Black Sea. It would seem likely then that the ICJ would favor the conception of the Turkish Straits as a single strait connecting two open seas, but this outcome is not guaranteed.

The Turkish Straits are comprised of: (A) The Dardanelles, (B) The Marmara Sea, and (C) The Bosporus. (Image: Maritime Studies South Africa)

It is also difficult to discern to what extent the United States would be able to practically alter the administration of the Turkish Straits. Turkey is a significant maritime power in its own right and much of its naval forces are stationed at Gölcük Naval Base, located on the east coast of the Marmara Sea. Any freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) would encounter immediate resistance and would add to the existing tensions between the Turkish and U.S. governments, especially as Turkey refuses to recognize UNCLOS.

The economic and social importance of the Straits to Turkey cannot be overstated. Beyond the millions of Turkish citizens who live on its banks and the commerce the Straits facilitate, it also offers a physical representation of Turkey’s duality as a European and Asian state, while the administration of the Straits has afforded Turkey a self-image as the guardian of the Black Sea.

Given all of this, it would possibly require the wholesale destruction of Turkish naval forces to impose a major change in the administration of the Turkish Straits and, even then, barriers could be erected intentionally or accidentally that would interfere with the future use of the waterway. In short, the legal and practical status quo offers the best guarantee for the continued flow of trade through the Straits.

Calls for Reform

However, there has been much discussion in Russian and Turkish policy circles around possible revisions to the Montreux Convention. These revisions would be detrimental to U.S. national interests, which include the maximum possible freedom of transit and navigation through the Turkish Straits. In particular, since the annexation of Crimea, some Russian defense planners have called for the Convention to be revised so that the length of stay in the Black Sea for vessels from non-littoral states would be shorter than the current allowance of 21 days. Furthermore, Russian policymakers have creatively interpreted the Convention since annexing Crimea in 2014.

In May 2016, Turkish President Recep Erdogan decried the Black Sea as a “Russian Lake.” In response, the Chair of the State Duma Committee on Defense, Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, claimed that the Russian Federation need only inform Turkey of the transit of its military vessels through the Turkish Straits and that restrictions on the number and kind of vessels transiting applied only to non-littoral states. Meanwhile, in response to Russia’s unilateral restrictions on the flow of maritime traffic through the Kerch Strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, Ukraine called in November 2018 for tighter restrictions on the number and kind of vessels from all states transiting the Turkish Straits, in hopes that this might interfere with the strategic maneuvers of the Russian Navy.

Russian Navy warships based in the Black Sea (Wikimedia Commons)

There have been rumblings from the Turkish government as to how Istanbul is “…threatened by the ever growing number of oil tankers and other dangerous cargo vessels” that transit the Straits. While Turkey has been mostly satisfied by regulations adopted through the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and other multilateral bodies, some Turkish commentators have proposed further action. In particular, some suggest promoting a regional ownership model for the Straits under the auspices of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC), a multilateral forum comprised of Turkey and the Russian Federation but also Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Moldova, Romania, Serbia, and Ukraine.

Such a model could facilitate the re-interpretation of the Montreux Convention, loosening the restrictions on vessels from Black Sea littoral states, but maintaining or even tightening the restrictions on vessels from non-littoral states. This could, in turn, be circumvented by the United States and other non-littoral states by re-flagging vessels. In the wake of the Crimean annexation, some American commentators suggested an enhanced NATO presence in the Black Sea by having U.S. Navy ships fly Bulgarian or Romanian flags. But this, too, would likely only add to tensions between the United States and Turkey as well as further undermine the rules-based order.

The Istanbul Canal

A $25-billion infrastructure project announced in 2011 by Turkey’s then-Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, known as the Istanbul Canal, presents the greatest challenge to the legal and practical status quo in the Turkish Straits. The canal would consist of a 45-kilometer waterway bisecting the European side of Istanbul, allowing 160 vessels daily to bypass the Bosporus as they transit between the Marmara and Black Seas. Officially, the Istanbul Canal was proposed to alleviate congestion on the Bosporus and divert tanker traffic toward less sensitive areas of Istanbul. However, Turkish freighter captains have cast doubt on this, noting that the canal as currently envisioned would be too shallow to accommodate many of the tankers Erdogan claims would be diverted from the Bosporus. Indeed, the canal plan calls for a maximum draft of 17 meters.

In reality, the Istanbul Canal may have been introduced to circumvent the Montreux Convention. In January 2018, Turkey’s then-Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım asserted that, as an artificial waterway, the Convention would not apply to the Istanbul Canal and so the Turkish authorities would be able to unilaterally restrict or regulate traffic through it. This again depends on whether the Turkish Straits are understood to be a single unit or as three distinct waterways – the Dardanelles, Marmara, and Bosporus. In the former interpretation, the Convention could still apply to the canal, given that it connects part of the Straits to the open waters of the Black Sea. In the latter interpretation, however, the canal would be an entirely new and distinct feature to which the Convention would indeed not apply.

Project route of the Istanbul Canal. (Image: TRTWorld)

In any case, the canal presents a serious threat to the spirit of the Convention. On the one hand, Turkey has consistently advanced the narrative that continued use of the Bosporus is unsafe to the natural environment, the millions who live on its banks, and the hundreds of vessels that transit each day, and so unilateral restrictions on maritime traffic through the Bosporus could be justified on the basis that vessels ought to transit the safer canal route. On the other hand, Turkey could upset the balance of power in the Black Sea region by allowing vessels to transit the canal that would have otherwise been denied passage through the Turkish Straits under the Convention. Either scenario would clash with the U.S. policy of seeking the maximum possible freedom of transit and navigation, while also making NATO’s capacity to support members and partners in the Black Sea region contingent on Turkish whims.

Similar concerns regarding Erdogan’s strategic intentions have been expressed in Russia, with some commentators warning that completion of the canal could soon be followed by a Turkish denouncement of the Montreux Convention. Under the Convention’s provisions, a denunciation by any of the signatories would prompt a conference to be held for the purposes of drafting amendments to the existing Convention or an entirely new agreement on the use of the Turkish Straits. For such a conference to be valid, the Convention calls for participation from three-quarters of the “High Contracting Parties” that are littoral states – in other words, five out of six of what is now Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Russia, and Turkey.

It is conceivable, then, that a denunciation by Turkey of the Montreux Convention could be followed by a conference to draft a new agreement, held validly without Turkish participation. But it is unlikely Turkey would readily abide by any new agreement that was drafted without its participation, especially when, from the perspective of the Turkish authorities, the Istanbul Canal and the denunciation of the Montreux Convention would afford Turkey full control over access between the Aegean and the Black Seas.

Open Channels

Fortunately, there are diplomatic options available that could preserve the status quo in the Turkish Straits. For example, through the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – of which the United States and all the Black Sea littoral states are members – a series of confidence- and security-building mechanisms (CSBMs) could be developed regarding access between the Aegean and the Black Sea. As exemplified by the Vienna Document, an integral document to the work of the OSCE, CSBMs can include annual exchanges of information on the disposition of military forces, base inspections, and the mutual invitation of observers to military exercises, all of which are intended to demonstrate to neighbors that there is no hostile intent behind various military activities in border areas.

The development of a similar document or agreement pertaining to the Turkish Straits could include a commitment from all parties not to interfere in any way with access between the Aegean and the Black Sea, aside from those powers already afforded Turkey under the Montreux Convention, effectively backstopping the Convention but also de facto extending its remit to any artificial waterways that might be established connecting the Aegean and Black Seas.

There is nothing here that would stop Turkey from refusing to abide by these terms at some later date – after all, Russia suspended its participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, another OSCE-related CSBM, a little over one year before it mounted its 2008 attack on Georgia. But a suspension of Turkish participation in CSBMs related to the Straits would afford an early warning to the U.S., Russia, and other interested parties that a denunciation of the Montreux Convention may be forthcoming.

Even with a Turkish denunciation of the Convention, CSBMs would help to avoid a regional arms race. The continued exchange of information between the other Black Sea littoral states would provide assurance that no one state intends to take advantage of the change in the practical and legal status of the Turkish Straits, such as by securing a side agreement with Turkey that would allow for an increased buildup of naval forces in the Black Sea. The inclusion of some clear punitive measures for state non-compliance in the CSBM could also deter Turkey from unilaterally altering the practical or legal status of the Straits – for example, the imposition of sanctions by all other parties – but this could also make the conclusion of any agreement on the CSBM unlikely. In any case, it would serve Turkey’s national interests to participate in such an arrangement as CSBMs would provide a safety net for all of the concerned parties, helping to avoid any change in the legal or practical status of the Turkish Straits from escalating into armed conflict.

Beyond multilateral agreements and fora, Erdogan must also contend with public opinion at home. The newly elected Mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, has expressed strong opposition to the Istanbul Canal project and handily defeated former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, a canal proponent and Erdogan ally, despite alleged efforts by the Turkish authorities to skew the election results in Yıldırım’s favor. Calls for a referendum on the canal also bode ill for Erdogan, with polling in December 2019 showing that more than 72 percent of Istanbul residents are opposed to the project. The canal could be sacrificed in hopes of avoiding a showdown with İmamoğlu for the presidency in Turkey’s anticipated 2023 general election.


Given the strategic importance of the Turkish Straits – and the rumblings for reform from Ankara, Moscow, and even Kyiv – the most prudent course for U.S. policymakers would be to ensure open diplomatic channels, both by pursuing commitments from littoral states in multilateral fora like the OSCE, and by maintaining an open dialogue with all Turkish stakeholders on this issue. Neglecting these diplomatic tools would mean surrendering the initiative to the Turkish authorities, who have thus far demonstrated a willingness to erode the legal order that has governed the Turkish Straits for nearly a century whenever it is deemed to serve narrowly defined national interests.

Paul Pryce is the Principal Advisor to the Consul General of Japan in Calgary, and a long-time contributor to the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). He has previously written as the Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Maritime Nation Program and earlier served as a Research Fellow with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly.

Featured Image: Turkish Navy MILGEM corvette transits by the Dur Yolcu Memorial on its way to the Dardanelles (Turkish Ministry of Defense photo)

Singapore’s Fleet Modernization: Slow and Steady?

By Paul Pryce

Among the maritime forces of the small Southeast Asian states, the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) stands as one of the most robust. As some regional partners, such as the Indonesian Navy, struggle to acquire a submarine fleet, the RSN is currently well-served by two Challenger-class (formerly Sjöormen-class in the Swedish Navy) and two Archer-class (formerly Västergötland-class in the Swedish Navy) diesel-electric submarines, which Singapore began acquiring at the turn of the century. Yet RSN defence planning and strategic intent is difficult to discern, since Singapore has never released a formal maritime strategy or, for that matter, a comprehensive national security strategy. The closest approximation of such a document was released in 2004, which has not been updated since, and discusses the importance of law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the fight against terrorist organizations like Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and al-Qaeda.

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In the absence of a clear road map for the development of the RSN, an excellent analysis is offered by Dr. Swee Lean Collin Koh in the 18-page Naval War College Review articleSeeking Balance: Force Projection, Confidence Building, and the Republic of Singapore Navy,” published in 2012. The author focuses on the evolution of Singapore’s maritime force to date in order to offer some impressions of its future course, detailing how the RSN matured from a “sea-denial” navy to a “sea-control” navy.

With regard to that maturation, Dr. Koh points out three procurement projects that were key to the RSN attaining the capacity for sea control. First, the aforementioned acquisition of a submarine fleet grants the RSN some capacity for force projection and covert intelligence-gathering beyond Singapore’s waters, though this has drawn condemnation from neighbours like Indonesia. It seems the RSN is likely to retain these capabilities in the future, as it was announced in late 2013 that Singapore intends to phase out its two older Challenger-class submarines and replace these vessels with two Type 218 diesel-electric submarines designed by Germany-based ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems, the first of which is to be delivered in 2020.

Secondly, the acquisition between 2007 and 2009 of six Formidable-class stealth-capable guided-missile frigates, based on the French La Fayette-class frigate design,

080717-N-8135W-006 PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii (July 17, 2008) Republic of Singapore frigate Steadfast (FFS 70) steams off the coast of Hawaii during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2008. RIMPAC is the worldÕs largest multinational exercise and is scheduled biennially by the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Participants include the U.S., Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Netherlands, Peru, Republic of Korea, Singapore and the United Kingdom. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kirk Worley/Released)
Republic of Singapore frigate Steadfast (FFS 70) steams off the coast of Hawaii during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2008. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kirk Worley/Released)

provided the RSN with true blue-water combat capabilities and greatly contribute to the force’s capacity for anti-air and anti-submarine warfare. This was, according to the author, not a procurement ‘out of left field’ but instead built incrementally on existing RSN capabilities, such as the six Victory-class corvettes Singapore acquired from Germany’s Friedrich Lürssen Werft in 1990-1991. In any case, the blue-water capability of the RSN has subsequently been demonstrated by the deployment of Formidable-class frigates RSS Intrepid in 2012 and RSS Tenacious in 2014 in support of Combined Task Force 151 in counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.

Republic of Singapore Navy frigate RSS Formidable (68) steams alongside the Indian Navy frigate INS Brahmaputra (F 31) in the Bay of Bengal during exercise Malabar (US Navy photo).
Republic of Singapore Navy frigate RSS Formidable (68) steams alongside the Indian Navy frigate INS Brahmaputra (F 31) in the Bay of Bengal during exercise Malabar (US Navy photo).

Finally, the RSN’s four locally built Endurance-class landing platform docks (LPDs) provide the force with strategic sealift. These are indicative of Singapore’s strategic intent insofar as the past 15 years of defence procurement are concerned – namely that Singapore intends to employ its navy first and foremost in a humanitarian role in multilateral operations. For example, three of the RSN’s four LPDs were deployed in response to the 2004 tsunami and earthquake in Aceh, Indonesia, providing valuable humanitarian assistance. The LPDs have since been deployed in support of reconstruction efforts in Iraq, counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, and on search and rescue missions in the Indian Ocean region. Interestingly, a fifth vessel of this class was produced by Singapore for export to Thailand in 2012.

This tendency to participate in multilateral operations and exercises, which has increased dramatically since the 1980s, reflects an important undercurrent of Singapore’s defence planning, according to Dr. Koh. Although the resources and equipment available to the RSN could have been much more rapidly expanded, fleet expansion and modernization has been incremental so as to avoid setting off a regional arms race. As a small state, Singapore has a particularly keen interest in conflict prevention, opting to resolve any disputes in the courts rather than on the battlefield. This strategy has served Singapore well, such as when an ongoing dispute between Singapore and Malaysia over ownership of Pedra Branca, several islets at the eastern entrance to the Singapore Strait, was resolved in 2008 by an International Court of Justice decision in favour of Singapore’s claim. Meanwhile, in order to avoid any future tensions with Malaysia, the RSN has delegated patrols of such waterways to the Police Coast Guard, which acquired a fleet of ten specially designed Shark-class patrol boats from Damen Schelde in 2009. These vessels are in fact armed – specifically with a Mk 23 Rafael Typhoon Weapon System with 25mm Bushmaster chain gun and two CIS 50 12.7mm machine guns – but do not share the overtly militaristic impression that an RSN patrol would likely convey.

This could also explain the lack of a formal maritime strategy, though the author does not explicitly draw this connection. By identifying security threats to be addressed by the RSN, there would be the risk of ratcheting up tensions with one neighbour or another. Beyond interfering with any ongoing negotiations Singapore may have with claimants like Malaysia and Indonesia, including territorial disputes in a strategic guidance document would effectively “securitize” relations within Southeast Asia. First introduced as a theory of international relations in the 1990s by the scholars Barry Buzan, Ole Waever, and Jaap de Wilde, securitization occurs when an issue is presented as a security threat that requires the intervention of state

RSS Persistence
RSS Persistence

authorities and the employment of extraordinary means, such as the use of military force, rather than following the course of political dialogue. Put differently, Singapore’s assertion of ownership over a specific islet or body of water in a kind of ‘National Security Strategy’ would only serve to escalate tensions, prompting neighbours to make equally bold claims and arm themselves to enforce those same claims. Such escalation can be seen in other parts of the Asia-Pacific region due to assertive behaviour from one or more parties; Singapore’s quiet caution has helped to avoid the spread of such conflict and reinforced international legalist norms of behaviour.

A development not anticipated by this article, however, is the emergence of a new, locally-produced ship design to succeed the Fearless-class patrol vessels that have served the RSN for two decades. The Independence-class littoral mission vessel is larger in size, with a displacement of 1,200 tonnes and a length of 80 metres, and will be considerably more adaptable than the previous patrol vessels. In total, eight vessels will be built, the first of which is expected to reach completion by the end of 2016. Given that the LPDs were also built at home, this is very likely an indication that Singapore seeks to develop its domestic shipbuilding industry and it will be worth watching whether this is followed by efforts to promote designs for export. This would not be unprecedented, considering the aforementioned sale of an LPD in 2012 to the Royal Thai Navy. It also leaves some question as to whether Singapore, following the passing of Lee Kuan Yew, may depart from its historically cautious approach and seek a new, more assertive role for the RSN. Until that question is settled, Dr. Koh’s work for the Naval War College Review is the clearest narrative readers may find of RSN fleet modernization and expansion.

Paul Pryce is Political Advisor to the Consul General of Japan in Calgary and a long-time member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). He has previously written as the Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Maritime Nation Program.

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North Korea and Asymmetric Naval Warfare

By Paul Pryce

In recent years, several detailed analyses have been produced on Iranian efforts to develop the doctrine and capabilities necessary to wage ‘asymmetric naval warfare.’ This has involved preparing the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Navy (IRGCN) to wage a kind of insurgency in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf, employing ‘swarming’ tactics with well-armed small boats and fast-attack craft along with naval mines, submarines, and anything else that might allow Iran to exploit the vulnerabilities of a technologically superior enemy like the United States Navy (USN). In 2008, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy released an excellent example of this analysis less than a year after IRGCN forces captured 15 British Royal Navy personnel that had been operating in Iraqi waters.

Yet there are few detailed analyses of whether the Korean People’s Navy (KPN) – the maritime force of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – could similarly employ asymmetric warfare to counter the technological superiority of the Republic of Korea (ROK) and its US allies. This is particularly surprising when one considers how Iran has only recently begun to develop such asymmetric capabilities since its mining of the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War, which saw significant damage to the guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts in April 1988. The DPRK, meanwhile, has been contending with a capability gap against its southern adversary for far longer. Although IRIN must divide its attention somewhat between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, the KPN is truly split into two distinct fleets, one concerned with the Yellow Sea to the west and the other concerned with the Sea of Japan to the east. Simple geography prevents the KPN from ever truly consolidating its forces. This extends, of course, even to shipbuilding, with many vessels in the Eastern Fleet originating at Wonsan Shipyard and much of the vessels in the Western Fleet originating at Nampo Shipyard.

Helped along by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the decline in availability of Russian military equipment, it seems the DPRK has set about developing its own defence industry and is producing new vessels that, while clearly unable to square off against ROK counterparts, could prove effective at waging asymmetric warfare at sea. Well-suited to swarming, the Nongo-class fast attack craft, which appears to be 35 metres long and displace 200 tons, could harass ROK and USN vessels. Rare glimpses of this vessel in DPRK propaganda footage suggest that the Nongo-class is equipped with a turret-mounted 76mm gun, possibly reverse-engineered from the Italian-designed OTO Melara 76mm, along with a complement of Russian-produced Zvezda Kh-35U subsonic anti-ship missiles.

Nongo class missile boat.
Nongo class missile boat.

The prominence of submarines in KPN modernization efforts is also telling. The old Romeo- and Whiskey-class diesel-electric submarines received from the Soviet Union are being phased out in favour of some domestically produced designs. Satellite imagery as recent as July 2014 indicates North Korea is building a submarine with a length of 65.5 metres and a displacement of between 1,000 and 1,500 tons, which has been dubbed the Sinpo-class, for addition to its East Fleet. South Korean media sources, such as Yonhap News, claim that the design is reverse-engineered from a Soviet Golf-II diesel-electric submarine and could deploy ballistic missiles. Others, like the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, believe the design to be based on older Yugoslavian designs like the Heroj- and Sava-classes. However, little else can be discerned about the lone vessel of this class spotted in satellite imagery.

The most compelling aspect of KPN asymmetric warfare to date is the continued prevalence of the Yeono-class midget submarines. First introduced in 1965, these vessels require a crew of only two to operate but can carry six or seven passengers, proving useful for DPRK covert operations against South Korea and Japan. With a submerged displacement of 130 tons and a length of approximately 20 metres, each is armed with two 533mm torpedo tubes. It is believed that a Yeono-class submarine fired the torpedo that sank ROKS Cheonan, one of South Korea’s Pohang-class corvettes, in March 2010. Although the KPN reportedly has only ten Yeono-class submarines left in operation, the attack on ROKS Cheonan demonstrates how such a weapon, deemed obsolete by Western standards, might still present a very real threat to network-centric navies like that of the ROK.

CNO Admiral Jon Greenert visits the Cheonan memorial in May 2013. U.S. Navy photo.
CNO Admiral Jon Greenert visits the Cheonan memorial in May 2013. U.S. Navy photo.

The North Koreans are not alone in recognizing the potency of midget submarines like the Yeono-class. Since 2007, Iran has acquired 14 submarines of this class and is domestically producing its own derivative of the design, known as the Ghadir-class. The convergence of Iranian and North Korean naval doctrine underscores the need for further analysis of the latter’s intentions, capabilities, and potential impact on the security of the Korean Peninsula’s littorals. The KPN’s Soviet submarines and swarms of small Kusong-class torpedo boats might have once seemed to American and South Korean defence planners to be sufficiently straightforward a threat to counter. But the vessels described here demonstrate that the DPRK is adapting to its strategically disadvantaged position and lack of technological sophistication.

This is particularly problematic for the ROK Navy, which has focused so heavily in recent years to attain blue-water status. According to the analysis of Vice Admiral (retired) Yoji Koda of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, the ROK has limited anti-submarine warfare capabilities. In this sense, the Yeono-class perfectly exploits one of the ROK Navy’s most glaring capability deficits. Satellite imagery may have picked out a vessel as substantial as the Sinpo-class, but what might it miss? Based on the successful engagement against ROKS Cheonan, it would not be a surprise if the DPRK were actively working on a new design based on the Yeono-class. Such small vessels would not be spotted as readily as a 1,500 ton submarine openly berthed at Sinpo South Shipyard.

Another area of some uncertainty regarding DPRK asymmetric capabilities is minelaying. Naval mines were of significant importance to the KPN during the Korean War – so much so that 70% of the casualties suffered by USN vessels during that conflict were due to mines laid by DPRK forces. Yet subsequent research suggests those mines were laid with significant Soviet guidance and training, and it would be a stretch to assume DPRK mine warfare has gained much in sophistication since then. There are also no indications whether the KPN currently operates dedicated minelaying vessels. In the absence of such, DPRK mine warfare would certainly be inefficient but it could, in the most desperate of circumstances, even employ civilian vessels in such a role. For example, during the Korean War blockade of Wonsan, the DPRK made use of local sampans as minelayers. It would be wise of the ROK Navy to not bet on that scenario and invest in improved mine countermeasures.

The DPRK is among the most secretive regimes and so detailed information on its military capabilities is scarce as has been indicated here. Yet what little can be prised from open source information shows that the DPRK is at least as advanced as Iran in its ability for asymmetric warfare at sea. It is vital that further attention be paid to the evolution of the KPN so that, first and foremost, incidents like the sinking of ROKS Cheonan are not repeated, but also to ensure that any potential intervention by the international community against the DPRK proceeds without significant loss of life or assets for the ROK and its allies.

Paul Pryce is Political Advisor to the Consul General of Japan in Calgary and a long-time member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). He has previously written as the Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Maritime Nation Program.

The Republic of Korea Navy: Blue-Water Bound?

By Paul Pryce

Defence Reform Plan 2020 (DRP2020), originally set out in 2005 by the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) Ministry of Defence, presents an ambitious vision for future military capabilities. For the Army, this will mean personnel reductions – specifically a total drop in troop strength from 690,000 in 2005 to 500,000 by the end of 2020 – in an effort to promote a more modern, professional force. For the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN), meanwhile, this has meant a shift in the focus of procurement projects so as to attain the status and prestige of a blue-water navy’. In other words, the ROKN will seek expeditionary capabilities, operating across the deep waters of the open oceans, rather than concentrating on its traditional role of securing South Korean littorals against intrusion by the military forces of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or foreign fishing vessels.

But is such a shift from a green-water navy to blue-water possible? Furthermore, is it desirable, given the ROK’s strategic situation? To understand the evolution of this still relatively young navy, it is worthwhile consulting a resource compiled by another regional partner. Particularly valuable insights can be found in a paper produced for the US Naval War College in 2010, entitled “The Emerging Republic of Korea Navy: A Japanese Perspective,” by (retired) Vice Admiral Yoji Koda, who formerly served as the Commander-in-Chief of the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force and interacted considerably with his ROKN counterparts from 1997 onward. VADM Koda briefly charts Korean naval history, starting from actions of Yi Sun-shin at the Battle of Myeongnyang in 1597 that thwarted a Japanese invasion, but his accounts of force modernization and expansion efforts by the ROKN since the 1990’s are the most detailed sections of the paper and will be of most interest for readers wanting to know what role the ROKN might play in the increasingly complex security order of the 21st century Asia-Pacific.

VADM Koda highlights two concerning capability gaps faced by the present-day ROKN: anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and mine countermeasures (MCM). On the first point, although the ROKN maintains a robust force of fast patrol craft to counter clandestine intrusions by North Korea, “the ASW posture of the ROKN still remains questionable today, in relation to the perceived threat of North Korean submarines and the geopolitical nature of the country.” Despite evidence suggesting that the Pohang-class corvette ROKS Cheonan was sunk in March 2010 by a torpedo launched by a North Korean submarine, there have been no compelling efforts by the ROKN to shore up its ASW capabilities. Perhaps the only saving grace for ROKN ASW has been, according to VADM Koda, the acquisition of three ASW-capable Gwanggaeto the Great-class destroyers in 1998-2000 and a small fleet of Westland Lynx helicopters. Though the ROKN is not without its own submarines – specifically four Sohn Won-yil diesel-electric submarines and nine Chang Bogo-class diesel-electric submarines – these are geared toward anti-surface warfare (ASUW).

The ROKN’s MCM capability has also been diminished by the decommissioning of coastal minesweepers donated by the United States following the Korean War. At the time of VADM Koda’s writing, the ROKN minesweeper fleet consisted of only three Yangyang-class coastal minesweepers and six Swallow-class coastal minehunters, which he deemed “not yet sufficient for the current security and military situation around the peninsula”. However, the ROKN seems to have recognized this vulnerability to the DPRK’s own doctrine of asymmetric warfare; in 2015, the ROKN launched the first vessel of the Nampo-class, a domestically built minelayer, and plans are in place to produce several new minesweepers based on the design of the Yangyang-class in the coming years. Even so, the ROKN could not solely carry out an MCM role in a future conflict on the Korean Peninsula – VADM Koda identifies the Tsushima Strait as vital to the logistics of any multilateral response to North Korean or Chinese aggression against the South. Unfortunately, no formal agreement currently exists between the Japanese and ROK authorities about conducting combined military operations, which would be crucial to ensuring a clear division of labour on MCM, with the ROKN securing the western end of the Tsushima Strait and the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) locking down the eastern channel. This stems from several ongoing political disputes between Japan and the ROK, including the status of Tsushima Island (known as Daemado Island in the ROK). The dispute over the island has persisted since 1948 and shows little sign of reaching a final resolution.

Korean Ship sails in formation at the end of Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2006. U.S. Navy photo.
Korean Ship sails in formation at the end of Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2006.

The ROKN has demonstrably obtained blue-water capabilities. As the paper notes, ROK President Lee Myung-Bak approved the establishment in 2009 of the Cheonghae Anti-Piracy Unit and its deployment to the Gulf of Aden in support of Combined Task Force 151. A few months later, the ROK joined the Proliferation Security Initiative. New, domestically built surface combatants, such as the Sejong the Great-class destroyers and Incheon-class frigates, possess impressive capabilities and the capacity to project South Korean power beyond the country’s coastal waters. The ROKN has also succeeded in expanding its amphibious capabilities, particularly through the commissioning of its first Dokdo-class amphibious assault ship in 2007 and the replacement in 2014 of aging US-transferred landing ships with the new Cheon Wang Bong-class. VADM Koda interprets this interest in amphibious capabilities as a reaction to the “bitter experience” obtained when the ROKN “found itself unable to participate sufficiently in the multinational relief operations on northern Sumatra, in Indonesia, after the earthquake and tsunami in December 2004”.

In short, while the paper cites ample evidence to believe the ROKN is on course to become a blue-water navy (and perhaps already has), the country’s policymakers and defence planners should pay more thought toward the objectives they wish their maritime forces to fulfill. Boasting the blue-water label and participating actively in humanitarian operations abroad may benefit national prestige, but North Korea remains a paramount security threat. It is clear that the ROKAF assesses its own capabilities as so vastly superior to their DPRK opponents that another attempted invasion of the South would be impossible, and this can be seen in the ROKN’s focus on the quality of landing craft over quantity. But the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan demonstrates that the ROKN ignores ASW and MCM capabilities at the peril of its brave sailors.

Paul Pryce is Political Advisor to the Consul General of Japan in Calgary and a long-time member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). He has previously written as the Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Maritime Nation Program.