As both China and Japan surge ahead with plans to build potent aircraft carrier capabilities, South Korea has joined the race and announced plans to build a modified large-deck aircraft carrier based on the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN) Dokdo Class amphibious warfare ships – leaving Australia as the only established Indo-Pacific power without a plan for an aircraft carrier capability.
At the end of the Second World War, the aircraft carrier emerged as the apex of naval prestige and power projection. Unlike their predecessor, the battleship, aircraft carriers in themselves are relatively benign actors, relying heavily a their attached carrier air-wings and supporting escort fleets of cruisers, destroyers and submarines to screen them from hostile action.
In recent years, nations throughout the Indo-Pacific have begun a series of naval expansion and modernisation programs with traditional aircraft carriers and large-deck, amphibious warfare ships serving as the core of their respective shift towards greater maritime power projection.
Driving this change is an unprecedented period of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and the growing capabilities of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which has seen the Chinese fielding or preparing to field a range of power projection capabilities, including aircraft carriers and supporting strike groups, fifth-generation combat aircraft, modernised land forces, area-access denial and strategic nuclear forces, combined with growing political and financial influence throughout the region.
Building on this, the long-term threat from North Korea has prompted South Korea to embark on a series of land, air and sea acquisition programs that support the Republic of Korea's transition towards developing a robust, deployable, conventional power projection and deterrence focused force – at the core of this redevelopment is the planned construction of a 30,000-ton short-take off, vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft carrier.
Developing blue water power projection
This new vessel – which is expected to be double the size of the ROKN's two previous Dokdo Class, which weigh in at 14,500 tonnes of displacement – will serve as the basis for Korea's burgeoning carrier capability and will be slightly larger than Japan's Izumo Class vessels at 27,000 tonnes of displacement, which will be modified to accommodate a fleet of STOVL-variant F-35B Joint Strike Fighters beginning in the mid-2020s.
It is expected that the new vessel will accommodate 16 F-35Bs, in conjunction with 3,000 marines and 20 armoured vehicles – further supporting the power projection capabilities of the new vessel and the broad ROKN. This announcement fits in with the broader reorganisation of the ROKN – this new vessel is similar in size to the Royal Australian Navy's Canberra Class amphibious warfare ships: HMA Ships Canberra and Adelaide.
Serving in a complementary role in Korea's transition towards a blue water capable navy is the original Dokdo Class vessels, which will serve as the flagship in Korea's 'Rapid Response Fleet' structure. Korea has recently announced plans for three additional 7,600-tonne block two Seejong the Great Class Aegis guided missile destroyers worth a total of US$3.3 billion, to be completed by 2028 – these vessels are expected to serve part of Korea's broader integrated air and missile defence capabilities with a secondary focus on anti-surface and land attack capabilities.
This complementary capability and force structure mix provides Korea decision makers with three credible rapid reaction fleets supported by a range of escort and sea control formations – however, the power of aircraft carriers comes from their embarked air wing, with Korea expected to build on its 2014 US$6.75 billion order for 40 F-35As with an additional 20 F-35Bs or replace the original order with 40 F-35Bs with an additional 20 F-35Bs.
Australia being left behind?
The Japanese government has closely monitored the rise of the Chinese Navy and its growing force of aircraft carriers and territorial ambitions, particularly in the South China Sea and the Southern Ryukyu and Senkaku Islands. In response, Japan recently announced that it would begin the refit of the Izumo Class vessels to reintroduce an integrated fixed-wing naval aviation capability to the JMSDF.
Izumo and her sister ship Kaga are capable of supporting airwings of 28 aircraft, with capacity for about 10 F-35Bs, with both 27,000-tonne vessels capable of supporting 400 marines. While in the early stages of design phase for the refit of the vessels, incorporating the F-35B into the two vessels enhances the maritime strike and broader deterrence options for Japan.
Driving the regional carrier race is the rising power, China’s pursuit of a credible blue water naval capability is taking a step closer to reality with new imagery revealing steady progress on the next-generation Type 002 conventional aircraft carrier at the Jiangnan Shipyard at the mouth of the Yangtze River – which will be the third aircraft carrier in service with the PLAN.
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, CATOBAR-based vessel, weighing in at 80-85,000 tonnes.
The next evolution of China's carrier force provides a launching point for the nuclear-powered Type 003 aircraft carrier. Currently understood to be in the design phase, the Type 003 will serve as the basis of China's power projection focused aircraft carrier force and is expected to be constructed at the Jiangnan Shipyard, which is currently undergoing a series of modernisation and expansion programs to accommodate an increase in the Chinese carrier fleet.
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.
Korea's focus on establishing itself as a regional power capable of intervening in regional affairs serves as a model for Australian force structure planners – the comparable economic, political and demographic size of Australia and South Korea combined with the similarity in the platforms and systems operated by both nations serve as a building block for both interoperability and similar force structure models.
As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Maritime power projection and sea control play a pivotal role in securing Australia’s economic and strategic security as a result of the intrinsic connection between the nation and Indo-Pacific Asia’s strategic sea-lines-of-communication in the 21st century.
Further compounding Australia's precarious position is an acceptance that 'Pax Americana', or the post-Second World War 'American Peace', is over and Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate.
Increasingly, multi-domain air power plays an important role in the efficacy of naval forces and serves as a key component in both the force structure and capability development plans for both South Korea and Australia – these similarities support not only closer relationships between the two nations that share unique geo-political and strategic similarities but also provide the opportunity to develop robust force structures to respond to the rapidly evolving regional strategic environment.
Recognising this changing regional environment – what carrier options are available to Australia should the nation's leaders elect to pursue a return to fixed-wing naval aviation for the Royal Australian Navy?