15.02.2021 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Why Does South Korea Need an Aircraft Carrier?


Continuing the previous story, let’s talk about other military programs of South Korea that are not of a defensive nature.

The aircraft carrier

Since late 2020, the South Korean Navy has been pushing the project of adopting a light aircraft carrier with a 3,000-ton displacement, despite controversy over its effectiveness. As Yonhap News Agency reported, during a closed-door meeting chaired by Joint Chief of Staff Gen. Won Yoo Chul, the decision was made and, according to a Defense Ministry source, “the relevant agencies will begin to develop basic strategies and conduct feasibility studies.”

What the aircraft for the aircraft carrier will be is not yet known, but the mockup showed a ship with nine F-35B Joint Strike fighters – this version of the F-35 fighter can take off without using a deck catapult and vertical landings, and is virtually the only fighter in the world that can do this. It is also the only model with stealth technology that is on the military’s list of requirements. Most likely, about twenty of them will be purchased, but so far it is stated that “the number of vertical takeoff and landing fighters required, the acquisition plan and the exact type of aircraft will be determined in accordance with the construction schedule of the light aircraft carrier.”

The estimated cost of the project is 2 trillion won ($1.74 billion) plus an equal amount for the purchase of vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. At the current stage, the goal is to begin basic design in order to take the aircraft carrier into service around 2033. Of the 52.8 trillion won defense budget for 2021, South Korea has allocated 100 million won for research on the light aircraft carrier project.

More precisely, 10.1 billion won ($9.3 million) was originally planned to be spent on the base project this year, but the Ministry of Economy and Finance reduced the amount to 100 million won for contracts covering research and debate.

What explains the need for a ship of this type?

The first group of arguments concerns the confrontation with the DPRK. The aircraft carrier will give South Korea the ability to attack the North from directions other than attacking through the DMZ. Standing in the Sea of Japan or the Yellow Sea, it will be able to launch F-35Bs into the DPRK from the west or east. At the same time it will be invulnerable to saboteurs or missile artillery of the DPRK pointing in the other direction. As for the submarine attack, “North Korea’s submarine forces are numerous, but obsolete and easily detected” (have the military forgotten their own myth about the invisible boat that sunk the corvette Cheonan?).

But much more interesting is the second group of arguments, which openly refers to predictions of worsening territorial disputes with neighboring countries, the historical feud with Japan, and the fact that in 2021 the PRC and Japan plan to commission new aircraft carriers, with this being the second such ship for China, while Japan announced back in 2018 its intention to convert its two Izumo-class destroyer-carriers into aircraft-carrying ships along with plans to purchase 42 F-35Bs.  As Navy Chief of Staff Poo Seok Jung stated, “We believe that in the future it is necessary to respond actively to threats from all directions.” So in this context, “China’s missile force, which can strike military bases along and across the Korean Peninsula, will have a problem in the form of an aircraft carrier.”

Opponents of this initiative believe that the ROK is already too late with this project because it could take more than ten years to implement, and during that time, the North’s submarine fleet could improve significantly.

In addition, taking into account the exercises, the need for repairs and crew rotations, it is necessary to take at least two or three of these ships into service: one is on patrol, one is being prepared, one, which has returned, is in the dock for maintenance.

Finally, an aircraft carrier is an excessive force in confronting the DPRK and ineffective in a possible conflict with neighboring states. Especially since South Korea is protected by the United States, which has more powerful and advanced aircraft carriers. As Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University, noted, “Combating growing military threats from neighboring countries such as China or Japan, as proponents of the project claim, is an area that should be addressed through a military alliance between South Korea and the United States, not by developing a local aircraft carrier.”

 Stealth fighters nicknamed “Liberator Knights”

Now let’s talk about the F-35 fifth-generation stealth fighters in general. South Korea began receiving them in March 2020, and in 2021 the ROK intends to buy 40 more F-35s from the US, half of which will be in the deck modification with vertical takeoff. The estimated cost of the deal is almost $7 billion. Thus, South Korea will have a total of 80 F-35 fighters, including twenty that will be deployed on the first aircraft carrier of the Republic of Korea (ROK).

And although fighter jet deliveries have faced some problems because of the pandemic and lack of storage space, a total of 24 fighters had arrived in the ROK from the United States as of October 20, 2020.

Project KF-X

Apart from supplying fighters from the US, the ROK intends to start its own fighter planes at a cost of 8.8 trillion won ($7.3 billion). Development of the KF-X began in December 2015, and on September 3, 2020, the Korea Defense Development Agency reported that the Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), which is handling the project, had begun the final assembly phase. The prototype is expected to be ready in the first half of 2021, after which the KF-X will undergo ground and flight tests for five years. The project is scheduled to be completed by 2026.

The KF-X is designed to replace the aging F-4 and F-5 aircraft. The aircraft bears a resemblance to the F-35A fifth generation and is designed to fly at a maximum speed of Mach 1.81, with a range of 2,900 kilometers.  With a maximum payload of 7,700 kilograms, the fighter will be able to carry several types of air-to-air missiles, such as the German IRIS-T and the active radar guided missile Meteor by the European developer MBDA.

The fighter will be equipped with an advanced proprietary active electronic scanning array (AESA) radar system, the prototype of which was announced in August 2020.

In addition, the German-Swedish defense company Taurus Sytems GmbH hopes to jointly develop with South Korea an airborne cruise and “anti-bunker” missile Taurus K-2 to destroy radar stations and other key facilities in North Korea for this project.

On January 31, 2020, the media reported that South Korea is in the final stages of assembling a prototype of the country’s first domestic fighter jet, which is expected to be unveiled in April 2021, and the author wonders who all this is directed against. After all, President Moon is so fond of talking about the peace process.

There are several possible explanations, and none of them speak well of Seoul:

  • Moon throws the military a bone to keep them from opposing his policies. Long-term projects, for which a lot of money is allocated, are a good breeding ground for army corruption.
  • All the talk about the peace process is but a lie, and the strategy of destroying the DPRK has not gone anywhere. In terms of facts rather than statements, Moon is even more invested in destroying the North than the conservatives, and the talks are needed to keep up the image.
  • The nationalist myth underlying ROK ideology pushes it into conflict with its neighbors, and the aircraft carrier winds up against Japan or China.
  • Inept and incompetent management is wasting money on a purely status-oriented project that no one wants. All that matters is to finish it, apparently.

In general, the South Korean defense industry can boast about more than just that — there are more feasible projects and military cooperation beyond the United States. But that is a topic for another time.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, a leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

Please select digest to download: