|This graphic provided by the Republic of Korea Navy shows an envisioned aircraft carrier battle group featuring an indigenous light aircraft carrier. The South Korean military has recently proposed developing the country's own light aircraft carrier. Courtesy of Republic of Korea Navy|
By Jung Da-min
Debate is heating up over the Republic of Korea Navy's plan to develop a light aircraft carrier. The Navy is strongly pushing for the vessel's development, saying it is an essential defense project for the country to meet the changing security situation surrounding the Korean Peninsula. However, critics say other weapons should be a priority considering the huge amount of money the country will have to allocate for the project.
According to the Navy plan, which began after the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) decided on the need for the project last December, Korea could complete the development of the light aircraft carrier with indigenous technologies by around 2033 through a 12-to-13 year design and construction process, provided the project is launched next year.
At a meeting of the defense project promotion committee last February presided over by Defense Minister Suh Wook, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) established the basic strategy for the aircraft carrier project. DAPA set a budget of 2.3 trillion won ($20.4 billion) for its development from next year to 2033.
|A graphic provided by the Ministry of National Defense in August 2020 shows an indigenous light aircraft carrier, which the military has recently proposed for development. Courtesy of Ministry of National Defense|
But the project still needs to go through several steps. Following DAPA establishing it, the Ministry of Economy and Finance launched a business feasibility study which is expected to be completed in August this year.
The National Assembly Defense Committee must then approve the study results before it can be started. The committee will hold a meeting around November when the Assembly's committees examine spending by each government ministry and department.
Hurdles remain as some members of the committee oppose the aircraft carrier development, questioning the effectiveness of the project in terms of cost and the regional security situation.
The Ministry of National Defense's first attempt to launch the project with a basic design process and budget of 10.1 billion won was voted down by the committee last year. After examining the proposed budget, the committee pointed out that the military had skipped due procedures such as conducting a feasibility study. The committee cut the proposed budget to 100 million won only to be used to conduct research or hold debates on the feasibility of the project.
|A session of the National Assembly Defense Committee is seen in this Feb. 17 photo. Korea Times file|
Controversy over development costs
Those who oppose the project often cite the "enormous" cost, not only for the development of the aircraft carrier, but also for the procurement of additional weapons sytems for it.
The carrier would be able to carry up to 20 planes including vertical take-off and landing aircraft such as F-35B, and rescue and maritime operations helicopters. It would have a 30,000 tons standard displacement, increasing to 40,000 tons with a full load.
Army general-turned-lawmaker Shin Won-sik of the People Power Party (PPP) has claimed the total costs for developing a light aircraft carrier and procuring planes to fly from it would be up to 5 trillion won. He also claimed the cost of operating an aircraft carrier battle group ― which would include two to three Aegis-equipped destroyers, new frigates and a nuclear-powered submarine ― would be an additional 3 trillion to 4 trillion won.
|A flight deck crew secures an F-35B Lighting II aircraft aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp following testing in this handout photo from the U.S. Navy, taken off the coast of North Carolina, Aug 24, 2013. Reuters-Yonhap|
Shin and some other members of the defense committee who oppose the project have said investing that amount of money would be a waste when developing other weapons such as missiles would be more effective to directly counter security threats posed by North Korea.
During a committee meeting last November, Shin said that South Korea should not invest in a "pretentious" project but focus on developing better performing Aegis destroyers as well as large-sized submarines that could fire submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).
But the Navy has expressed different views on the costs. It said most of the development and construction costs for the aircraft carrier, which would be about 2 trillion won, will be reinvested in the domestic defense industry as the ship would be built with indigenous technologies. Not only the hull but also the combat systems and onboard armament would be manufactured using these domestic technologies, according to the Navy.
|A graphic of an indigenous light aircraft carrier, which the South Korean military has recently proposed for development / Courtesy of Republic of Korea Navy|
The Navy also said the project was "affordable," considering that the costs are a combined amount to be spent over more than 10 years. South Korea's defense budget for 2021 is 52.84 trillion won.
Future security threats
The debate surrounding the effectiveness of the aircraft carrier project fundamentally stems from differences in assessing the current regional security situation and different views on how to deal with future threats.
Rep. Shin assessed that South Korea's major security threats have mostly come from North Korea and other neighboring countries and the future situation would not be different. Shin said aircraft carrier development would prove helpful if South Korea were facing security threats posed by countries located far away, but this is not the current case.
The Navy say South Korea could counter threats posed by North Korea and other neighboring countries even better with the aircraft carrier, as it would provide more options for military operations by carrying fighters nearer to targets, in situations where the use of ground air bases was limited.
Debate has also surfaced over whether Seoul should "join" the arms race in Northeast Asia. While China already operates two aircraft carriers, Japan is converting its Izumo-class and Kaga-class helicopter destroyers into light aircraft carriers capable of operating F-35B jets.
The Navy said South Korea should also develop its own aircraft carrier to overcome such "quantitative inferiority" of its naval power. But some defense experts said the country should look at its diplomatic strategies first and view whether China and Japan should be seen as enemies.