South Korea has never minced words about its plans to hone its defense capabilities, as seen in its determined push to splurge money and human capital on its own 4.5th-generation stealth fighter program known as KF-X, in collaboration with the Indonesian military, for a warplane with higher capabilities than a KF-16-class fighter.
The first prototype is scheduled to roll off the assembly line in 2021 for its maiden flight a year later, and initial deployment is expected in 2025, even though the ambitious scheme is beset with technical rows, postponements and funding constraints.
After news began to emerge that Japan was looking to convert its cruisers into nimble helicopter carriers, there have been reports that Seoul is also mulling a similar move.
Seoul’s semi-official Arirang TV has reported that the Korean Navy’s versatile Dokdo-class amphibious assault ships, measuring 199 meters in length, 31 meters in width and with a full displacement of 18,800 tons, could be retrofitted as sea-going airbases.
With its spacious hangar, the colossal assault ship can carry 720 marines, 10 tanks, 10 trucks, seven amphibious assault vehicles, three field artillery pieces, and two hovercraft. It also incorporates stealth technologies and has been hailed as one of the most advanced vessels in the Asia-Pacific region.
Analysts say the Dokdo’s design is similar in size to the light aircraft carriers derived from sea control ships such as the Spanish Navy’s former aircraft carrier Príncipe de Asturias.
They also point to South Korea’s shipbuilding expertise, as some of the world’s largest passenger liners, container ships and oil tankers were made by such Korean companies as Samsung Heavy Industries, Hyundai Samho, Daewoo, and Hanjin Heavy Industries. Hanjin was also the contracted builder of the Dokdo.
A second ship of the same tonnage is scheduled for launch between 2019 and 2020. A third ship is planned to have its own complement of fixed-wing aircraft .
Arirang’s report coincides with Seoul’s decision to press ahead with its procurement of the F-35B, the short takeoff and vertical landing shipborne variant of the US F-35 fighter series.
The Pentagon has responded positively to the lump-sum order rumored to be for more than 30 aircraft, yet it remains a contentious issue back home in South Korea as many argue against such a spending spree, in particular when the installation of the US-built THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile system is still rankling in critics’ minds.
Also, technical issues remain as to whether a ski-jump hull as well as heatproof coating should be added to Dokdo’s fight deck.
It’s said that Seoul once sought to buy retired carriers from the Russian Navy as it worked on a carrier prototype back in the 1990s. Two such scrap ships, Minsk and Novorossiysk, were purchased for a total of US$35 million.
Only time will tell if South Korea can afford the long-term maintenance of its blue-ocean naval assets.
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