South Korea plans to build its first aircraft carrier

Seoul (GDC) — South Korea plans to start building its first aircraft carrier next year, and acquire Lockheed Martin F-35B fighter jets to operate on it, the country’s Defense Ministry has announced.

South Korea published national defense plan this week, the government for the first time explicitly committed to building the billion-dollar equipment.

“The 30,000-ton level aircraft carrier can transport military forces, equipment and materials and can operate fighter jets that are capable of vertical take-off and landing,” said the Defense Ministry release.

“It will enable the military to more effectively suppress threats and dispatch forces and materials to a disputed region in the sea by playing a role of a controlling vessel for the navy unit.”

It is expected that South Korea will purchase US-made F-35B fighter jets, which have short takeoff and vertical landing capability, compatible with a small aircraft carrier. F-35Bs are the only short take-off and vertical landing fighter jets in production in the world.

The country will join Japan, Italy, UK, Singapore and the United States in deploying F-35Bs on light aircraft carriers in the western Pacific.

In December 2018, Japan announced it was refitting its Izumo-class helicopter destroyers to carry the F-35Bs — a landmark move as the country hasn’t put aircraft carriers to sea since World War II. Conversion of the JS Izumo was among the projects Japan listed in its most recent defense white paper as scheduled to begin in fiscal year 2020 reported CNN.

With its 30,000-ton displacement, the size of the South Korean ship will becloser to that of its Japanese counterpart rather than to the 43,000-ton USS America, which is deployed to Japan.

An lands aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp during 2015 trials.An lands aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp during 2015 trials.

China has also been constructing large, amphibious assault ships. However, Beijing doesn’t yet have fighter jets with the short takeoff and vertical landing capability to use on them.

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Lockheed Martin F-35B

South Korea didn’t give a cost estimate for the light aircraft carrier, but US government reports price a new version ofthe USS America — which is 25% to 30% bigger than the South Korean ship — at almost $4 billion. F-35B fighter jets cost about $122 million each.

F-35Bs are fifth-generation stealth jets, capable of flying at Mach 1.6 — more than one-and-a-half times the speed of sound — and landing vertically.

The planes can carry two air-to-air missiles and two 1,000-pound guided bombs in their internal weapons bays.

An F-35B takes off from the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp during testing in 2016.An F-35B takes off from the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp during testing in 2016.

Lockheed-Martin says their short takeoff and vertical landing capability allows them to operate from roads or small airports as well as ships — meaning they can be closer to the battlefront and have a quicker turnaround time on missions than conventional fighter aircraft.

“The primary advantage a small carrier offers South Korea is its use as a mobile airfield,” said Carl Schuster, a former US Navy captain and a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center.

The carrier can also expand the reach of the South Korean military, Schuster said — possibly as far as the Indian Ocean.

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