SEOUL — South Korea is to launch a new version of a large-deck landing ship from which short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing aircraft can operate by the late 2020s, amid naval buildups in China and Japan.
The decision was made during a July 12 meeting of top brass presided over by Gen. Park Han-ki, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea is gaining traction over Tokyo’s export restrictions on high-tech materials to South Korea.
“The plan of building the LPH-II ship has been included in a long-term force buildup plan,” said a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs, speaking on condition of anonymity and using an acronym for “landing platform helicopter.”
“Once a preliminary research is completed within a couple of years, the shipbuilding plan is expected to be included in the midterm acquisition list,” the spokesman added.
The new LPH is to be refit to displace 30,000 tons, double the capacity of the previous two LPHs — Dokdo and Marado — with 14,500 tons of displacement. The carrier-type vessel is also bigger than the 27,000 tons associated with Japan’s Izumo-class helicopter destroyers.
“It’s the first time that a light aircraft carrier-class ship is pursued under South Korea’s force improvement plans,” Kim Dae-young, an analyst at the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, told Defense News. “It’s also a symbolic and meaningful step to upgrade the country’s naval capability against potential threats posed by Japan and China.”
Japan has plans to convert its two Izumo-class helicopter destroyers by 2023 to light aircraft carriers from which the F-35B short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing (STOVL) jet can operate.
China is building two more aircraft carriers in addition to Liaoning, a refurbished ex-Soviet carrier. A modified version of the Liaoning is currently being fitted out in northern China, while another, larger carrier is having its modules built at a shipyard in the city of Shanghai. China is also building a Type 075 helicopter assault ship at another shipyard in the same city, while continuing to crank out a variety of conventional and nuclear-powered submarines.
South Korea bought 40 F-35As for its Air Force in 2014 for $6.75 billion, and 20 more could be purchased as part of midterm arms-buildup plans. In tandem with the light aircraft carrier plan, the military is considering buying 20 more F-35Bs, a defense procurement source said.
“A pilot study on the purchase of F-35Bs is being conducted by a state-funded research institute. The study results are to be released as early as September,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The study weighs in on two options to replace the order of F-35As with F-35Bs, and buy 20 more F-35s additionally.”
The new carrier is expected to hold 16 STOVL aircraft, 3,000 marines and 20 armored vehicles, according to the source. The LPH-II is expected to have a ski jump-style launch ramp.
The South Korean Navy has already launched two Dokdo-class LPHs in an effort to develop its blue-water operational capability, as well as counter North Korean threats.
In May 2018, the second Dokdo-class LPH was launched with reconfigurations from the lead ship. The 199-meter-long, 31-meter-wide LPH is equipped with a fixed-panel 3D surveillance radar built by Elta Systems, a subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries, in place of the Thales SMART 3D radar aboard the Dokdo.
As for Marado, its flight deck was adapted to accommodate two V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, while the Dokdo could carry only one V-22. Marado is also fitted with two Phalanx close-in weapon systems, instead of the Goalkeeper CIWS installed on the Dokdo.
The Dokdo-class LPH can carry up to 720 fully equipped marines, 10 tanks, 10 trucks, seven amphibious assault vehicles and three artillery systems. It can sail at a maximum speed of 41 KPH with a crew of 300 on board.
The well deck has a capacity for two landing craft. Below the deck hanger, 15 helicopters, including two V-22s, can fit while the flight deck can simultaneously accommodate up to five helicopters of all types.
Mike Yeo in Melbourne, Australia, contributed to this report.
Jeff Jeong was the South Korea correspondent for Defense News.