South Korea Is Packing Its First Aircraft Carrier with F-35s

Kyle Mizokami
·5-min read

From Popular Mechanics

  • South Korea has announced it will build the country’s first true aircraft carrier.

  • The unnamed ship will be less than one-third the size of an American supercarrier, but it will still carry up to 15 fighter jets.

  • The ship will enhance South Korea’s power projection capability while keeping a large number of stealthy warplanes safe from North Korean surprise attack.

South Korea has announced plans to build the country’s first aircraft carrier. The LPX-II-class ship will be the largest warship ever built by Korea—50 percent larger than existing ships. The carrier could haul up more than a dozen F-35B Joint Strike Fighters on a moving platform that won’t be easy for North Korea to target in wartime. Here's a mockup:

Photo credit: South Korea Ministry of Defense
Photo credit: South Korea Ministry of Defense

U.S. Naval Institute News reports that South Korea’s latest defense planning document includes new details on the new, unnamed LPX-II large naval combatant. LPX-II was originally thought to be a new amphibious ship along the lines of the Dokdo-class ships—that is, an amphibious ship that looks like an aircraft carrier, but whose real purpose was to transport marines to shore.

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South Korea maintains a large force of marine infantry, modeled on the U.S. Marine Corps, whose mission is to storm Pyongyang and swiftly seize the North Korean capital in wartime.

Photo credit: Pool - Getty Images
Photo credit: Pool - Getty Images

Instead, LPX-II will be a real aircraft carrier embarking real fixed-wing fighter jets. The ship will weigh 30,000 tons empty, a number that will increase by 20 to 25 percent when the ship is fully loaded. It will have a full-length flight deck, split island for overseeing flight operations, and two elevators for transporting aircraft from the hangar to flight deck.

LPX-II will be twice as large as the similar Dokdo-class amphibious ship and puts it in the rough size class as the U.S. Navy’s America-class amphibious assault ships. A 40,000-ton ship will also be the largest warship ever constructed on the Korean peninsula.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Barker/DVIDS
Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Barker/DVIDS

The new mockup shows the ship with nine F-35B Joint Strike Fighters, the Marine Corps's version of the F-35 fighter, on the flight deck. South Korea is one of the largest buyers of the F-35, with orders for 40 F-35As (the conventional takeoff and landing version used by the U.S. Air Force) and 20 F-35Bs. The F-35B can perform rolling takeoffs and vertical landings without the use of a deck catapult, and is pretty much the only fighter in production worldwide that can do that.

Although the mockup depicts the ship with nine F-35Bs, the similar America-class can carry up to 20 of the fighters. The order of 20 F-35Bs is likely a full embarkation plus two or three spares, which suggests South Korea thinks it can stuff up to 15 or more of the jets aboard the ship.

The carrier also appears to have one Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawk helicopter embarked. In 2019, South Korea requested to buy 12 MH-60R Seahawks, multi-mission helicopters used by the U.S. Navy to hunt submarines, destroy small surface ships with Hellfire anti-tank missiles, rescue downed aircrews, and ferry supplies between ships.

Photo credit: MC2 Mark A Leonesio/DVIDS
Photo credit: MC2 Mark A Leonesio/DVIDS

South Korea, a country just slightly larger than the state of Indiana, is very aware of its junior status in Asia. Korea has typically seen itself as a “shrimp between two whales,” stuck between regional giants Japan and China. South Korea's economy, which is expected to become the ninth largest in the world this year is heavily dependent on exports.

All of this makes South Korea a maritime country by nature. The threat from North Korea, however, has until recently forced it to invest much of its defense budget in its ground forces.

An aircraft carrier will give South Korea the ability to fly combat missions against North Korea from directions other than over the demilitarized zone. Parked in the Sea of Japan or Yellow Sea, LPX-II will be able to fly F-35Bs into North Korea from the west or east, forcing the totalitarian state to remain vigilant to threats from not only the south, but also the west and east.

Carrier-based aircraft would also be able to take advantage of blind spots in North Korean air defense system, egressing the country where its aging military infrastructure has created gaps in radar coverage.

Photo credit: STR - Getty Images
Photo credit: STR - Getty Images

An aircraft carrier will also create a safe platform at sea for South Korea air power. In the event of war, North Korea will likely use long-range rocket artillery, paratroopers, saboteurs, and other means to shut down South Korean air bases—a major source of the country’s growing military superiority.

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A floating air base will be invulnerable to all but submarine attack, and North Korea’s submarine force is numerous, but antiquated and easily detected. This also extends to China’s large ballistic and cruise missile force, which can strike military bases up and down the Korean peninsula.

Photo credit: STR - Getty Images
Photo credit: STR - Getty Images

Another likely factor is South Korea’s historical feud with Japan, which once held the Korean peninsula as a colony. In 2018, Japan signaled its intent to transform its two Izumo-class helicopter destroyers into ships capable of carrying fixed-wing aircraft, and announced plans to purchase 42 F-35Bs. Japan’s building of aircraft carriers, which it largely did as a response to China’s building of aircraft carriers, created pressure for South Korea to follow suit.

While LPX-II will be a major capability for the South Korean Navy, a single carrier force will have limitations. The rule of thumb is for every carrier ready on patrol, a country needs a second preparing to patrol and a third just coming off patrol or in dry dock for maintenance. Carriers can’t stay at sea forever, and Seoul may eventually see the need for a second, and perhaps even a third ship. Whether the country can afford those ships remains to be seen.

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