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Naval Warfare

Competition kindled for Korea’s controversial carrier

10th June 2021 - 23:56 GMT | by Gordon Arthur in Christchurch

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HHI is offering the ROK Navy a CVX design, one fitted with a ski jump. (HHI)

An as-yet-unapproved light carrier, and an indigenous close-in weapon system (CIWS), grabbed the headlines at South Korea's MADEX naval exhibition.

Even though the programme does not yet have the approval to proceed, two prospective shipbuilders are vying for the opportunity to design and build a light aircraft carrier for the Republic of Korea Navy (ROKN).

Both Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering (DSME) and Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) were out in force at the MADEX naval exhibition in Busan from 9-12 June, showing scale models of their respective designs for the nascent CV eXperimental (CVX) programme.

Both companies took different design approaches for this vessel, once referred to as the LPX-II and originally conceived as a follow-on to the Dokdo class. However, the ROKN disclosed plans for a full carrier last August, and the CVX nomenclature appeared in February. This ROKN flagship would be the centrepiece of its blue-water operations.

If approval is granted, the aim is to have the estimated KRW2.3 trillion ($2.1 billion) vessel ready by 2033.

The ROKN wants it to accommodate up to 16 F-35B fighters plus eight helicopters. Relying heavily on automation, the ship’s complement would be around 440, plus an air component.

Moving on to discuss the two competing designs displayed at MADEX 2021, both designs featured two islands on their flat decks, somewhat akin to the RN’s Queen Elizabeth-class carriers.

DSME’s design does not have a ski jump ramp, but HHI’s does. Incidentally, in its media releases, the ROKN has been utilising images of the former’s design. The DSME carrier is 263m long, 46.6m wide and displaces 45,000t.

Its top speed is 27kt, and it could accommodate 16 fighters on its flight deck and 12 more in the hangar. DSME is believed to be working with Babcock International, the company that designed the RN’s new carriers, and Fincantieri signed an agreement to help with design.

DSME's design for the proposed CVX is more conventional, with a flat deck and two islands. (DSME)

The HHI design, as mentioned, features a ski jump. This vessel might appear more forward-leaning, for it can be scaled from a short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) design into a short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) one. Thus, the modular ski jump could be removed in the future, and the flight deck modified to accept a catapult.

HHI’s carrier is 270m long, 60m wide, displaces 45,000t, and it can launch and recover aircraft simultaneously. It can handle 16 F-35s on its flight deck and has space for eight inside its hangar. Significantly, the HHI design also allocates stern space for UAVs.

The arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth in South Korea later this year could be considered a marketing opportunity for British companies to wedge their feet in the door of this programme.

Some see the CVX as a stepping stone to a larger carrier in the future. However, long before that, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) faces a monumental challenge in getting the National Assembly to approve, and the general public to agree, to the construction of a CVX.

The Ministry of Economy and Finance must first conduct a feasibility study, upon which the National Assembly will base its decision. The National Defense Committee refused an MND application for KRW101 billion ($90.9 million) to research requirements for FY2021. Instead, the ministry received less than $900,000 for this purpose.

Hong Joon-pyo, a member of the aforementioned committee, is opposed to the CVX. He argued last November, ‘All a physically small country, like ours, needs is land-based airfields. Our money would be better spent on building nuclear submarines instead.’

It is debatable whether a single light carrier would deter China or Japan, whereas it could be considered overkill for dealing with North Korea.

With ROK Air Force (ROKAF) airbases at risk from North Korean artillery and missile strikes, the existence of a mobile carrier gives Seoul a useful second-strike capability. Albeit, Kim Jong-un’s ability to neutralise the South’s airbases could be exaggerated, some critics claim.

Then again, others say the ROKN should go the whole hog and get a catapult-equipped carrier rather than just the STOVL type envisioned now. A catapult would allow the operation of airborne early warning aircraft and the F-35C, which can carry JDAMs internally, something the F-35B cannot do.

The ROKAF plans to operate 80 F-35s, of which 20 would be F-35Bs and the remainder in a conventional configuration. Heat-resistant coatings on the CVX flight deck will be essential.

Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) revealed it might develop a navalised carrier-borne version of its KF-21 fighter. This would occur from 2033 as part of Block 2. Such a KF-21 would require a STOBAR carrier, of course.

Another important programme gaining attention at MADEX 2021 was the CIWS-II programme, where LIG Nex1 and Hanwha Systems exhibited competing designs. The CIWS-II will be an indigenous weapon to replace the Phalanx, whose price has been rising, on the latest vessels such as the KDDX, FFX-III and CVX.

This is ROKS Yang Man-chun, whose Goalkeeper CIWS was tested last year after being ...

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