- By Michael Evans
- An hour ago
South Korea is planning to join an exclusive club of about a dozen countries that possess aircraft carriers.
The proposed warship, designed to carry up to 20 of America’s jump-jet F-35B Lightning II joint strike fighters, will project South Korea into a higher league of maritime powers, and add another carrier to a region already engaged in a naval arms race.
Construction of the 652ft ship will begin next year and it is due to be launched in the late 2020s. The decision follows the breakdown of what initially looked like encouraging diplomatic progress between North Korea and the US on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
After two summits between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, in Singapore in 2018 and Hanoi in 2019, hopes of a breakthrough in denuclearising the Korean peninsula were dashed. After an 18-month self-imposed freeze while the talks were going on, Pyongyang resumed short-range ballistic missile tests in May last year.
The new vessel will be about a third of the size of the US Navy’s 11 nuclear-powered supercarriers, but unlike several nations that have carriers with flight decks only capable of launching helicopters, the South Korean warship will be a dedicated fixed-wing aircraft platform. It has been called LPX-II class and will be a 40,000-ton ship.
Japan is converting its largest warship, the helicopter-carrying destroyer JS Izumo, into a carrier for short takeoff and vertical landing F-35Bs.
The US Marine Corps operates 20 of the same aircraft from the USS America, a new amphibious assault ship, forward-based at the Japanese port of Sasebo. The US supercarrier USS Ronald Reagan is based at Yokosuka.
Despite the rapidly growing threat posed by China’s anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles to all foreign warships in the region, South Korea’s main concern is to have a ship capable of carrying its most advanced fighter jets to mitigate the risk of a surprise attack on its air bases by North Korea. The so far unnamed LPX-II light carrier, which will cost an estimated $858 million, would be able to attack North Korea from the Sea of Japan or the Yellow Sea.
South Korea has ordered 20 F-35Bs from the US and 40 F-35As, the conventional takeoff version of the fighter jet based on land.
Britain has also ordered the F-35B model for the Royal Navy’s two 65,000-ton aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth, which is due to begin her maiden operational deployment next year, expected to be the Indo-Pacific region, and its sister ship, HMS Prince of Wales, which is still under construction.
The presence in the region of four national navies with the fifth-generation stealth fighter jumpjets – the US, Japan, South Korea and the UK – will change the balance of military power.
The South Korean Ministry of National Defence’s 2021-25 acquisition plan also includes the purchase of more US Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers, attack submarines and advanced amphibious assault vehicles for the country’s marine infantry.