F-35A Purchase Raises Questions Over South Korean Aircraft Carrier Program

South Korea is expected to purchase 20 new F-35A Block 4 Lightning II stealth fighters for the Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF) – raising questions about the future of the South Korean aircraft carrier program. A decision is expected to be announced later this month, according to local media reports, with the aircraft slated […]

Republic of Korea Navy CVX carrier concept. RoK Navy Image

South Korea is expected to purchase 20 new F-35A Block 4 Lightning II stealth fighters for the Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF) – raising questions about the future of the South Korean aircraft carrier program.

A decision is expected to be announced later this month, according to local media reports, with the aircraft slated to be introduced no earlier than mid-2020s. But these plans indicate a wider shift in the defense posture of South Korea and signals a change in the threat priorities as viewed from Seoul.

There is speculation that the advance of the F-35A project will come at the expense of Republic of Korea Navy (RoKN) plans for the procurement of a 30,000t light aircraft carrier – dubbed CVX – and a similar accompanying number of about 20 F-35B variant short take-off and vertical landing aircraft.

The stealthy F-35As for the RoKAF are designed to be used as pre-emptive strike and counter-strike assets that will target North Korean military installations and nuclear weapon launch facilities and storage sites. This brings the focus on potential threats directly on the Korean Peninsula and South Korea’s unstable neighbor. The RoKAF already has 40 F-35A Block 3 aircraft in-service.

Meanwhile, a light carrier is designed for operations against more distant threats in support of expeditionary operations further away from South Korea. The decision to buy the F-35As will likely mean a delay in the procurement of CVX. Both sets of aircraft are estimated to cost about $3 billion.

The change in priorities is a result of the recent change in government in Seoul, where, following elections in March, President Yoon Suk-yeol, from the People’s Power party, replaced the former President Moon Jae-in, from the Democratic Party of Korea.

Kim Jae Yeop, a defense and senior researcher at Sungkyun Institute for Global Strategy (SIGS), Sungkyunkwan University told USNI News that CVX had been a “landmark project” for Moon “who actively sought to expand the focus of Korea’s defense modernization beyond threats from Pyongyang.”

Two F-35A Lightning IIs from the 354th Fighter Wing, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, depart from a KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 117th Air Refueling Squadron, Forbes Field Air National Guard Base, Kansas, over the Indo-Pacific, March 10, 2022. US Air Force Photo

Kim explained that one of the driving forces behind this expansion was to enable the RoKN to stand up to Japan following trade disputes and a naval clash in the East Sea in 2019. Moon wanted the navy to have its own carrier to confront the naval power of Japan after it decided to convert its two Izumo-class helicopter carriers into light carriers.

As a result, South Korea invested in Aegis-capable destroyers, new classes of submarine and a pair of Landing Platform Helicopter (LPH) amphibious assault ships over the past two decades.

Yoon seems to have very different priorities for defense modernization.

“His government believes that bolstering deterrence on Pyongyang’s growing arsenal of weapons of mass destruction including nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, is more important and urgent,” Kim said.

That would mean the F-35A decision is the better option, Kim said. However, the RoKAF is limited by older aircraft.

The RoKAF has more than 400 aircraft in its inventory, but these include more than 100 1970s- and 1980s-vintage F-4 Phantom and F-5 fighters.

“These fighters are blamed for the loss of air force pilots due to a number of flight accidents,” Kim said.

These will be replaced with the introduction of indigenously built aircraft the KF-21 from 2026 and FA-50 light combat fighter as well as the F-35, he said.

The CVX decision has been controversial since its announcement in the Mid-Term Defence Plan (MTDP) 2021-2025 published in 2020. It is the centrepiece of the RoKN’s ambition to become a blue water navy. It failed secure funding, despite a memorandum of understanding signed in October 2021 between Korean Aerospace Industries and Hyundai Heavy Industries to design and develop CVX.

Kim said he believes that because it was assumed CVX would conduct operations in and around the Korean Peninsula, such as along the littorals of North Korea or near disputed islands like Dokdo (or Liancourt Rocks), it was not the best use of an expensive asset when alternatives were available.

The RoKN will likely need to highlight the advantage of a light aircraft carrier in order to have more support for the program, Kim said.

“This includes CVX’s contribution to multinational missions with the U.S. Navy and other regional allies and partners,” he said. “In this case, the CVX may carry out a greater role in dealing with the maritime threat from China, rather than Japan.”

Top Stories 2020: International Naval Acquisition

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. China, Russia and the U.S. all announced sweeping expansions of their naval capacity in 2020 as the three largest world fleets vie for high seas influence in a declared era of great power competition. The new tone for […]

HMS Queen Elizabeth R08 arriving back in Portsmouth July 2, 2020 after a period at sea conducting Operational Sea Training. UK Royal Navy Photo

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020.

China, Russia and the U.S. all announced sweeping expansions of their naval capacity in 2020 as the three largest world fleets vie for high seas influence in a declared era of great power competition. The new tone for naval forces is helping U.S. allies achieve more lethal navies and expanded capabilities.

Everyone Wants an Aircraft Carrier

Chinese carrier Shandong. PLA Photo

While a debate of the future aircraft carrier force raged in the U.S., American allies and adversaries moved to purchase their own naval aviation capability.

In China, the People’s Liberation Army Navy made progress on its third aircraft carrier that would be a domestic design featuring modern catapults and arresting gear. The Type 003 (occasionally referred to in the West as the Type 002) is a departure from the Soviet-style carriers currently in the PLAN’s inventory.

“This design will enable it to support additional fighter aircraft, fixed-wing early-warning aircraft, and more rapid flight operations and thus extend the reach and effectiveness of its carrier-based strike aircraft. [China’s] second domestically built carrier is projected to be operational by 2024, with additional carriers to follow,” the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on Chinese military capabilities.

At least one senior U.S. official said China’s enthusiasm for the program makes a case for the efficacy of the carrier platform.

“To me that makes all the sense, they’re a maritime power and they understand the great value that comes from carrier aviation and how that can shape the international environment. It’s taken us over 100 years to get that right,” Adm. Chris Grady, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, said during the American Society of Naval Engineers 2020 Fleet Maintenance Modernization Symposium in September.
“Lot of blood, lot of loss of life, a lot of sweat and tears to make naval aviation work. We’ve got a huge lead and one that will continue to expand into the future. Go ahead and build that big ship, but to build the ecosystem that is naval aviation that brings that ship to life – that’s going to take a lot of hard work and time.”

Concept image of the LPX-II Lighting Carrier from South Korea. Republic of Korea Navy Image

South Korea is developing capacity to allow their big-deck ships to launch fixed-wing fighters. Following Japan’s conversion of its two Izumo-class helicopter destroyers to field F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters, the Republic of Korea Navy is building a light carrier to field F-35Bs. The LPX-II carrier will be dedicated to naval aviation and not be modeled after U.S. and Japanese big deck amphibs, USNI News and Naval News reported in August.

Artist’s impression of PANG aircraft carrier.

France kicked off its own carrier program with an announcement from President Emmanuel Macron in early December. The PANG (Porte Avion Nouvelle Generation, or next-generation aircraft carrier) program is set to produce a replacement for the existing FS Charles de Gaulle (R91) aircraft carrier around 2038. Reuters reported the carrier could cost up to $6 billion.

The U.K. Royal Navy continued the development of its two-ship Queen Elizabeth-class carrier program with a carrier strike group exercise featuring lead ship HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08). HMS Prince of Wales (R09) was commissioned in late 2019 and has been working through post-delivery trials. The ship is currently undergoing repairs after major flooding in October. In November, the U.K. proposed a massive $32-billion military expansion that includes a larger Royal Navy fleet.

China’s Rapid Naval Expansion

Chinese sailors. Xinhua Photo

China’s rapid expansion of the People’s Liberation Army Navy drew major concern from the Pentagon in 2020.

“The PRC has the largest navy in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants. In comparison, the U.S. Navy’s battle force is approximately 293 ships as of early 2020. China is the top ship-producing nation in the world by tonnage and is increasing its shipbuilding capacity and capability for all naval classes,” reads the Pentagon’s annual China military power report.

China is expanding its fleet in every area.

“It’s important to highlight the Chinese shipbuilding advantages in terms of its size of the fleet, is both in context of the broader modernization ambitions, virtual class military. This is a long-term challenge, and it’s not only demarcated by a single variable, which would be total number of vessels, tonnage capacity, capabilities, location, posture, activities, and then other aspects,” Chad Sbragia, deputy assistant secretary of defense for China, said in September.

In addition to aircraft carriers, the PLAN kept up a high rate of construction throughout 2020.

The report highlighted the launch of almost two dozen Luyang III guided-missile destroyers, the commissioning of the 30th Jiangkai II-class guided-missile frigate, the construction of six Renhai guided-missile cruisers and the entrance more than 40 Jiangdao corvettes into the PLAN fleet.

The lead Chinese Type-075 preparing for sea trials. Photo via Weibo

China is also expanding its amphibious fleet, marked by the start of sea trials for the Type-075 big-deck amphibious warship. The Congressional Research Service tied the development of the Type-075 and the Type-071 amphibious warship to Beijing’s desire to reunite with Taiwan.

“The Type 075 would be of value for conducting amphibious landings in Taiwan-related conflict scenarios, some observers believe that China is building such ships as much for their value in conducting other operations, such as operations for asserting and defending China’s claims in the South and East China Seas, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) operations, maritime security operations (such as antipiracy operations), and noncombatant evacuation operations (NEOs),” the report reads.

China is also looking to expand its submarine force.

“The PLAN currently operates four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) with two additional hulls fitting out, six nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), and 50 diesel-powered attack submarines (SSs). The PLAN will likely maintain between 65 and 70 submarines through the 2020s, replacing older units with more capable units on a near one-to-one basis,” reads the report.

Many of the new platforms are fielding new anti-ship weapons and land-attack cruise missiles.

HI Sutton Image, used with permission

China also developed its own unmanned surface vehicle that bears a resemblance to the U.S. Navy’s Sea Hunter program.

Russia’s Less Rapid Naval Expansion

K-560 Severodvinsk in 2018. Russian MoD Photo

Russia has seen a more modest uptick in naval construction in 2020.

In July, Russian Navy head Adm. Nikolai Yevmenov promised the Russian Navy would commission 40 ships into service – a mix of corvettes, mine countermeasures ships, ballistic missile submarines and a blend of nuclear and diesel-electric attack boats.

Among the most important shipbuilding efforts for the Russian Navy is the Yasen-class nuclear attack boat program.

The Russians have been slow to deliver the highly capable attack boats with only one, Severodvinsk, currently in service. Second-in-class Kazan is close to commissioning, successfully test firing both land-attack and anti-ship missiles in a training range near the Northern Fleet’s White Sea naval base, reported Naval News. The third ship in the class is also set to commission soon.

The effectiveness of the Yasen boats have, in part, driven the U.S. to pay more attention to anti-submarine warfare efforts in the Atlantic.

Jane’s reported that the Russians had laid the keel for two more Yasen attack boats, bringing the total under construction to eight.

The Russian Navy is moving to expand its fleet in the Pacific, announcing an increase of 15 ships in its Pacific Fleet in 2020 in the state-controlled Tass wire service.