With continuing American, Chinese and now Japanese and Korean interest in aircraft carriers and big deck amphibious ships, the regional race to introduce increasingly powerful platforms is gathering pace.
For many around the world the sight of a supercarrier is a potent symbol of American power, presence and prestige. Equally important are the growing number of large deck, amphibious warfare ships, typically Landing Helicopter Docks (LHDs), like the Australian Canberra Class LHDs, which provide unique, power projection capabilities in smaller, arguably more cost-effective packages.
In recent years, Indo-Pacific Asia has seen a growing number of traditional aircraft carriers and large deck, amphibious warfare ships being used to secure sea-lines-of-communication, maritime borders, while acting as potent power projection platforms through the use of amphibious operations and potent marine units.
So what do these regional capabilities currently look like and who is introducing them?
United States Navy: Since the Second World War, the United States Navy has been dominated by the use of aircraft carriers of all sizes and their supporting battlegroups.
Ranging from large fleet carriers like the USS John F Kennedy and USS Kittyhawk and the large nuclear powered supercarriers of the Nimitz and new Gerald R Ford Class supercarriers, to the large deck, amphibious warfare ships of the Wasp and America Class, the US Navy in the Indo-Pacific is the regional carrier heavyweight.
In the Indo-Pacific, the United States Navy, currently has the following supercarriers either home port based, forward deployed or on operational deployment:
- USS Nimitz (CVN-68) – Bremerton, Washington – currently in dry dock;
- USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) – San Deigo, California – currently on operations off the coast of southern California;
- USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) – Bremerton, Washington – currently on operations in the eastern Pacific; and
- USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) – Yokosuka, Japan – currently on operations in the Philippine Sea.
Both the Nimitz and Gerald R Ford Class supercarriers are exceptionally potent power projection platforms, weighing in at 100,000 tonnes, supporting 85-90 fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, including F/A-18 E/F and G series Super Hornets and Growlers, MH-60S/R Seahawk helicopters, E-2D Advanced Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft and growing numbers of the fifth generation, F-35 'C' carrier-based variant of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.
In the Indo-Pacific, the US Navy currently has the following large deck, amphibious warfare ships either home port based, forward deployed or on operational deployment:
- USS Wasp (LHD-1) – Sasebo, Japan – currently on operations in the East China Sea;
- USS Essex (LHD-2) – San Diego, California – currently at home port;
- USS Boxer (LHD-4) – San Diego, California – currently on operations off the coast of southern California;
- USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) - San Diego, California – currently at home port;
- USS Makin Island (LHD-8) – San Diego, California – currently at home port; and
- USS America (LHA-6) – San Diego, California – currently at home port.
America's Wasp and America Class vessels provide a complementary force projection unit to the large US supercarriers. Additionally, these 40-45,000 tonne vessels provide amphibious support for US Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU) and Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) through the operation of Marine fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, including MV-22B Osprey, CH-53 series Super Stallions, UH-1Y Venom, AH-1Z Viper and the short-take off, vertical landing (STOVL) 'B' variant of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.
People's Liberation Army - Navy: China is the relative newcomer to the regional flat top race but is rapidly establishing itself as a regional carrier super power, with the recent introduction of the Type 001 and Type 001A class carriers, based heavily upon the Russian Kuznetsov Class aircraft carriers.
Liaoning (CV-16), the first Chinese carrier (Type 001), was commissioned in 2012 and provides a potent, 58,600 tonne, 304.5-metre platform capable of supporting an airwing of 40 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, including the Shenyang J-15, a Chinese variant of the Russian designed Su-33 Flanker D and a fleet of domestic support helicopters.
CV-17, the second Chinese carrier commissioned earlier this year and an enlarged variant of the Liaoning, is a 70,000-tonne, 315-metre vessel with a similar airwing capacity of 40 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft.
China's carrier ambitions are not limited to these two platforms, with increasingly capable aircraft carrier designs currently in varying stages of design or construction. The Type 002 carrier, expected to be commissioned in 2023, will be a traditional, catapult assisted take-off, barrier arrested recovery (CATOBAR) based vessel, weighing in at 85,000 tonnes.
These vessels will support a similar airwing capacity to the Type 001 and Type 001A of 40 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft.
The current pinnacle of Chinese aircraft carrier design is encapsulated in the Type 003 aircraft carrier. These vessels are directly comparable to the US Navy's Nimitiz and Gerald R Ford Class supercarriers and are expected to weigh in at 110,000 tonnes and be capable of supporting an airwing of between 70 and 100 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft.
Additionally, serving a similar role to America's large deck, amphibious warfare ships, China is responding with the construction of three Type 075 landing helicopter docks, weighing in at 40,000 tonnes, placing them in the same category as the US Wasp Class vessels. It is anticipated that these vessels will accommodate up to 30 helicopters and be capable of supporting amphibious landings through the use of advanced command and control facilities.
Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force: Japan's history of offensive operations during World War II has prevented the JMSDF from operating aircraft carriers or large deck, amphibious warfare ships as both are considered to be offensive weapons systems.
However, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has embarked on an unprecedented period of JMSDF expansion in response to the growing carrier and amphibious capabilities and ambitions of the PLA-N. In response, the JMSDF has introduced a series of steadily larger, more capable 'helicopter-destroyers' of both the Izumo and Hyuga Class.
When first launched, both the Izumo and Hyuga Class vessels drew extensive criticism from the Chinese in particular for being an "aircraft carrier in disguise". Izumo and her sister ship Kaga are capable of supporting airwings of 28 rotary-wing aircraft, with capacity for approximately 10 'B' variant of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, with both 27,000-tonne vessels capable of supporting 400 marines.
The smaller Hyuga Class vessels, weighing in at 19,000 tonnes, are capable of supporting an airwing of 18 rotary-wing aircraft, with space for amphibious units and supporting equipment. Additionally, it is speculated that like their larger Izumo Class cousins, the Hyuga and sister Ise can be modified to accommodate the F-35B.
The Abe government has also responded to growing territorial disputes with the Chinese, particularly around the Senkaku Islands, by expanding Japanese efforts to retrofit the Izumo Class ships to accommodate F-35Bs to operate in similar manners to American LHDs. Additionally, the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party has made calls for the government to introduce a 'multipurpose aircraft carrier'.
Republic of Korean - Navy: Korea has in recent years focused on establishing itself as a regional, blue-water navy capable of projecting force away from the country's littoral zone through the development of the 'Strategic Mobile Fleet' centralised on the new Dokdo Class amphibious assault ships.
As the core of the ROK-N expeditionary capability, Dokdo and her two sister ships are designated Landing Platform Helicopter (LPH) vessels, and are capable of supporting 720 marines and up to 200 vehicles, including tanks. Additionally, these ships can support an airwing of 10 rotary-wing aircraft when no vehicles are in the hangar deck.
Given the comparable size of Dokdo and existing light aircraft carriers like the Spanish Navy's Principe de Asturias, the Korean government, like its Japanese counterpart, has also begun the process of investigating the feasibility of purchasing F-35B fighters to operate from the vessels to provide indigenous fleet air defence for the vessels and support group.
Royal Australian Navy: Australia's Canberra Class LHDs are designed to serve as the core of the nation's future amphibious force. Canberra and her sister Adelaide provide significant amphibious, maritime force projection and humanitarian support capabilities to the RAN.
At 27,000 tonnes, both vessels are capable of supporting a fully equipped amphibious force of over 1,000 troops, supporting vehicles, logistical support and airlift assets. Based on the Spanish Juan Carlos Class LHDs, the ships are designed to replace the Spanish Navy's ageing Principe de Asturias light aircraft carrier through the operation of AV-88 Harrier STOVL aircraft and support helicopters.
While capable of supporting the F-35B variant of the Lightning II JSF, Australia, unlike regional allies and competitors, has no intention or plans to purchase and/or operate fixed-wing aircraft from the vessels. Despite this, both vessels are capable of supporting eight helicopters in a standard load-out, with a maximum load-out of 18 helicopters, including MRH-90 Taipan, CH-47F Chinook and ARH-Tiger helicopters.