Abandoned 1990s concepts for 'Arsenal Ships' get a second chance thanks to South Korea

The "Arsenal Ship" appears to be revived after South Korea plans to build three of its own.
Christopher McFadden
Artist's impression of a proposed U.S. 1990s "Arsenal Ship."


The Republic of Korea (ROK) has announced its intentions to select the native shipbuilder, Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering (DSME), to design and build a trio of "Joint Firepower Ships," similar to an abandoned U.S. 90s concept called the "Arsenal Ship." While details are currently thin on the ground, these ships could act as floating missile silos, each carrying at least 80 ballistic missiles or more.

Such ships could be used for surface navy defense and attack distant land targets like North Korean military assets and government infrastructure. The "Joint Firepower Ship" will serve as the sea-based component of South Korea's "kill chain"—a network of sensors, spies, special forces, and shooters intended to locate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a crisis and carry out a preemptive attack on him and his nuclear arsenal. Being a ship, it will also be highly mobile, making countering North Korean armed forces more difficult.

This new ship will also be complemented by other news that South Korea's Defense Acquisition Program Promotion Committee (DAPA) plans to invest 600 billion won (about $467 million) between 2024 and 2036 to develop a new ship-to-surface ballistic missile. DAPA has also explained how the new missile differs from the nation's existing cruise missile "Haeryong." Once mounted on the newest Aegis destroyer and "Joint Firepower Ship" of the ROK Navy, DAPA anticipates the new missile will demonstrate deterrence capabilities against North Korean nuclear and missile threats.

Plans for these ships emerged in August 2019 at around the same time as the CVX aircraft carrier project, but everything has gone quiet until now. By the end of this year, Naval News reports, the ROK Navy intends to complete the concept design of the ship, including its size, shape, missile capacity, and ROC (Required Operational Capability). Construction will start if the project's viability is determined in the ensuing design phase.

Abandoned 1990s concepts for 'Arsenal Ships' get a second chance thanks to South Korea
Concept art of an American 1990s "Arsenal Ship."

The new ship is based, it seems, on an American ship design from the 1990s. The "Arsenal Ship" was a proposed massive warship with 500 armored missile silos and a crew of no more than 50 sailors. At that time, it was envisaged that such a ship would carry many Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles or a combination of anti-air, anti-submarine, and land-attack cruise missiles. It would also be partly remotely controlled by other warships in the fleet, like an Aegis cruiser or destroyer, and act, in this sense, as a "remote magazine" for the fleet.

However, given its reliance on support ships, it would have been very vulnerable to attack (since it lacked sonar and radar) and useless for any other action. For this reason, it was eventually mothballed as an idea.

Whatever the case, by the late 2020s, the ROK Navy hopes to acquire three of these ships, each of which will be equipped with more than 80 missiles, allowing them to perform a preventive strike on North Korea's interior military installations in the case of an impending missile attack. We may also see other navies, like the United States Navy, giving the concept another look in years to come if the ROK proves successful.

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