South Korea Could Build an Aircraft Carrier (Armed with F-35s?)

South Korea Could Build an Aircraft Carrier (Armed with F-35s?)

A powerful South Korean lawmaker wants Seoul to acquire a large, catapult-equipped aircraft carrier. If officials follow through on the potentially multi-billion-dollar proposal, South Korea would become only the third or fourth country in the world with such ships.

A powerful South Korean lawmaker wants Seoul to acquire a large, catapult-equipped aircraft carrier. If officials follow through on the potentially multi-billion-dollar proposal, South Korea would become only the third or fourth country in the world with such ships.

Choi Jae Sung, a member of South Korea's leading Democratic Party, pitched the carrier-buy in a white paper that parliament’s National Defense Commission on the Navy and Air Force distributed earlier in 2019, according to South Korean newspaper Money Today.

Choi’s paper sketched two options. One, a 70,000-ton-displacement vessel with 1,400 crew that would carry 32 fighters and eight helicopters. That ship would be similar in design to the Royal Navy’s new Queen Elizabeth-class carrier, although the British ship lacks catapults and instead launches its fixed-wing planes via a bow-mounted ramp.

The second option in Choi’s paper is a 40,000-ton flattop with 700 crew and carrying just 12 fighters and helicopters, placing it in the same class as the U.S. Navy’s America-class assault ships.

It’s unclear how seriously South Korean officials take Choi’s proposal. But Seoul already is developing an aircraft carrier, albeit a smaller one than the lawmaker pitched. The new aviation ship could help Seoul’s navy to compete with its main rivals, the Chinese and Japanese fleets.

The South Korean joint chiefs of staff decided on July 12, 2019 to acquire an assault ship capable of operating fixed-wing aircraft, Defense News reported. The vessel presumably would embark vertical-landing F-35B stealth fighters.

Seoul for years has mulled a purchase of F-35Bs to complement the country’s land-based F-35As. The country’s defense ministry in October 2019 announced it would buy an additional 20 F-35As to join the 40 A-models the air force acquired starting in 2014. An acquisition of carrier-capable F-35Bs has yet to materialize.

“The plan of building the LPH-II ship has been included in a long-term force buildup plan,” a spokesman for the joint chiefs told Defense News, using an acronym for “landing platform helicopter.”

“Once a preliminary research is completed within a couple of years, the shipbuilding plan is expected to be included in the midterm acquisition list,” the spokesman added.

The new LPH will displace around 30,000 tons of water, roughly twice as much as the South Korean navy’s two LPH-Is displace. The older assault ships embark only helicopters. A 30,000-ton vessel easily could operate a dozen or more F-35Bs plus other aircraft.

Acquiring a carrier represents “a symbolic and meaningful step to upgrade the country’s naval capability against potential threats posed by Japan and China,” Kim Dae-young, an analyst with the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, told Defense News.

The new flattop, and Choi’s pitch for even bigger aviation vessels, is part of a wider naval buildup in South Korea. The South Korean government on April 30, 2019 approved plans to acquire new destroyers and submarines for the country’s fast-growing navy.

The $6-billion acquisition include three Aegis destroyers armed with ballistic-missile interceptors and three submarines equipped with their own launchers for land-attack missiles.

The new ships could help Seoul’s navy to expand beyond its current, largely coastal mission. The main threat to South Korea is North Korea, specifically the North’s huge force of artillery that in wartime quickly could demolish Seoul and endanger millions of people.

But looking beyond the North Korean threat, South Korea clearly has ambitions to develop a far-sailing “blue-water” navy. Carriers, both big and small, would support those ambitions.

The South Korean navy in 2019 operates 68 major warships including 16 submarines, 12 destroyers, 13 frigates, 13 corvettes and 14 amphibious warfare ships. The fleet also includes scores of patrol boats, mine-warfare vessels and auxiliaries.

The three new Sejong the Great-class destroyers and three new Dosan An Chang-Ho-class submarines apparently will expand the fleet rather than replace older vessels.

“The new Aegis destroyers will be outfitted with an upgraded missile launch system which will allow them to intercept ballistic missiles,” Yonhap news agency reported. “They will also represent a marked upgrade in detection and tracking abilities.”

The navy currently possesses three of the Sejong the Great-class destroyers that it acquired between 2008 and 2012. The 11,000-ton-displacement destroyers are among the most heavily-armed in the world and boast 128 vertical missile cells for SM-3 air-defense missiles and Hyunmoo-3C cruise missiles.

The new submarines during wartime also would hunt North Korea’s own large but aging fleet of subs. Pyongyang operates around 70 undersea vessels, including around 20 Soviet-designed Romeo-class attack boats and scores of midget submarines.

South Korea’s first carrier will sail into crowded seas. Japan's cabinet on Dec. 18, 2018 approved a plan to modify the Japanese navy's two, 27,000-ton-displacement Izumo-class helicopter carriers to embark F-35Bs. The modifications could result in the Japanese fleet operating, for the first time since World War II, flattops with fixed-wing aircraft.

The Chinese navy has two carriers. Another is under construction. Beijing’s fleet could possess as many as six aircraft carriers by the mid-2030s, experts told state media. They could be a mix of conventional and nuclear-powered vessels -- some with ramps, others with catapults.

Even the smallest Chinese carrier displaces around 60,000 tons of water, making it twice as big as South Korea’s likely first flattop. But the biggest of the ships Choi has proposed at least would match the Chinese vessels.

David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels  War FixWar Is Boring and Machete Squad.