Responding to growing concerns about a sneak attack crippling its land-based air base infrastructure, South Korea has released further details about plans for the nation’s first aircraft carrier based on the existing Dokdo Class vessels, with power projection missions also on the cards.
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.
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.
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 recent 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.
Building on the success of the Dokdo Class
The first of South Korea's aircraft carriers is an enlarged variant of the currently in service Dokdo Class landing platform dock ships, which are more akin to Australia's Canberra Class LHDs and the US Navy's Wasp and America Cass LHDs.
Construction of the LPX-II Class is expected to commence in 2021 by Hydundai Heavy Industries (HHI) for launch later in the 2020s – the proposed vessel is expected to be longer and heavier than the Dokdo Class vessels with a displacement of approximately 30,000 tons and capable of accommodating 20 F-35Bs and an unspecified number of helicopters.
Unlike the preceding Dokdo Class vessels, the LPX-II will not include a well dock, enabling the ship to carry more fuel and munitions to support the sustained fixed wing naval aviation operations against heavily defended airspace or naval formations.
The Ministry for National Defense stated, "The 30,000-ton level aircraft carrier can transport military forces, equipment and materials and can operate fighter jets that are capable of vertical take-off and landing.
"It will enable the military to more effectively suppress threats and dispatch forces and materials to a disputed region in the sea by playing a role of a controlling vessel for the navy unit."
While China's rapidly growing naval aviation and power projection capabilities have been well documented, potential sneak attacks and commando raids hindering the availability and survivability of South Korean air fields appears to be a major driving force behind the Korean development.
Former US Navy captain and a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command's Joint Intelligence Centre, Carl Schuster, explained to CNN the driving force behind the acquisition, stating, "The primary advantage a small carrier offers South Korea is its use as a mobile airfield. If North Korea targets South Korea's air bases ashore, being able to manoeuvre and attack from ever-changing locations has tactical and operational advantages.
"It signals the ROK Navy intends to operate farther from home than it does now."
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.