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South Korea doubles down with new, expanded aircraft carrier plans

The CATOBAR variant of the HMS Queen Elizabeth which has emerged as a potential design basis for South Korea's growing conventional aircraft carrier ambitions (Source UK Defence Journal)

Drawing inspiration from the resurgent Royal Navy, South Korea is preparing two plans for a conventional aircraft carrier force in response to the rising capability of both the People’s Liberation Army Navy, Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force and North Koreas continued nuclear belligerence – marking a major step change for the rising Asian power and its ambitions in the region.

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.

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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 on 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.

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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 – the first stage of this redevelopment is the planned construction of a 30,000-ton short-take off, vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft carrier.

However, further developments, including recently submarine-launched ballistic missile tests by North Korea, combined with the growing capabilities of the PLAN following the recent sea trials for the fleet's second short-take off, barrier arrested landing (STOBAR) aircraft carrier and the launch of its first large deck amphibious warfare ship, has spurred a South Korean response.   

Enter Choi Jae-ung, a prominent member of South Korea's ruling Democratic Party, who has pushed a plan for the nation to develop a conventional carrier force, presenting two catapult assisted take-off, barrier arrested recovery (CATOBAR) design options:

  • A 298-metre, 71,400-ton variant with a 1,340 crew compliment (not including air wing members) capable of housing 32 fixed wing combat aircraft and eight helicopters; and
  • A 240-metre, 41,500-ton variant with a approximately 670 crew compliment (not including air wing members) capable of housing 12 fixed wing combat aircraft. 

"Tactical limitation" concerns for STOVL carriers

A key driving force behind Choi's push toward larger, more traditional aircraft carriers is the tactical and strategic limitations of converted large-deck amphibious vessels like the Dokdo Class vessels when compared to the large Chinese carriers currently in service and expected to enter service in the coming decades, placing the ROKN at a major disadvantage. 

"In view of the current military expansion rate of major north-east Asian countries, the future battlefield in 2033 will be very different from what it is now. You should review your plan changes," Choi posited in a report to the South Korean government. 

The proposed 41,500 variant is comparable to the French Navy's Charles de Gaulle nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, which has a complement of 1,950 including the air wing personnel and plays host to at least 28 aircraft, but has a maximum capacity of 40 aircraft, including E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning and control aircraft.

South Korea's plans for the larger, 71,400-ton variant draws inspiration from the Royal Navy's Queen Elizabeth Class carriers and the next-generation French PA2 Class CATOBAR carrier variants filling a niche capability role, providing the nation with a powerful power projection capability for the ROKN, particularly as its maritime and trade interests are increasingly challenged. 

This role is something echoed by late US senator John McCain, who advocated for complementing the US Navy's large, nuclear-powered fleet of Nimitz and Ford Class aircraft carriers, with smaller, yet equally capable medium-sized aircraft carriers in his white paper Restoring American Power.

"The Navy should also pursue a new ‘high/low mix’ in its aircraft carrier fleet ... Traditional nuclear-powered supercarriers remain necessary to deter and defeat near-peer competitors, but other day-to-day missions, such as power projection, sea lane control, close air support, or counter-terrorism, can be achieved with a smaller, lower cost, conventionally powered aircraft carrier," McCain's report posited. 

Your thoughts

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.

Both fixed-wing naval aviation and amphibious capabilities are one of the key force multipliers reshaping the Indo-Pacific. The growing prevalence of fixed-wing naval aviation forces in particular serves to alter the strategic calculus and balance of power.

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South Korea doubles down with new, expanded aircraft carrier plans
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