An preliminary plan for the CVX by the world's largest shipbuilder, Hyundai Heavy Industries. Photo: HHI

SEOUL – South Korea’s navy looks set to get the kind of big, shiny toy that admirals lust for after the National Assembly made a big splash Friday by reversing an earlier decision and budgeting for an aircraft carrier.

The development plunges Asia’s fourth-largest economy into a regional carrier race that already boasts strong entrants from China, India and Japan. However, there are questions over whether the Republic of Korea Navy, or ROKN, needs such a vessel to project hard power – or simply wants one to project soft power.

“I think you will struggle to find two Koreans who can agree on the aircraft carrier,” a source familiar with naval affairs told Asia Times.

This apparent clash of motivations has been reflected in the budget push and pull on the project.

The National Assembly Friday agreed on a 7.2 billion won (US$6.1 million) budget for the weapon in a plenary vote, Yonhap news agency reported. That reversed a committee-level decision last month to reduce that budget to 500 million won, with members of the opposition stating that there was no national consensus on the need for the carrier.

Specialist media Navy News considered the November reduction, “a de facto hold of the project.”

Now, with South Korea’s National Assembly on Friday splurging on the country’s biggest annual budget ever, worth 607.7 trillion won ($516.42 billion) for 2022, an almost 9% increase over this year’s budget, the carrier project, or CVX, is back in play once more – part of a record defense budget.

Asia Times understands that the moderate amount of cash assigned in the preliminary budget is not for the vessel itself – the cost of which is likely to be many multiples of 7.2 billion won – but for the early tranches of consulting, feasibility studies and design work.

Two bids for the CVX have been made public.

The UK’s HMS Queen Elizabeth made a high-profile tour of the Indo-Pacific this year as the country seeks to project an image of ‘Global Britain.’ Photo: AFP / Adrian Dennis

British defense firm Babcock, designer of the Royal Navy’s two latest carriers, has signed a memorandum of understanding with local shipbuilder Hyundai Heavy Industries. Italian shipbuilder Fincantiari has teamed up with Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering.

Designs circulating online show the CVX as a twin-island carrier, similar to the British Queen Elizabeth, which visited the region this year. However, there is variance in the bow design. Some versions have a take-off ramp, others do not.

There has been no bid – at least, not publicly – from the United States, which stations around 28,000 troops in Korea and which has for decades been South Korea’s key non-domestic arms supplier.

“The Americans are almost certainly circling the prize, but the US way of doing business is government-to-government offers,” said the source, who spoke to Asia Times on condition of anonymity. “Government bids can be more discrete – you can add other elements to the deal, and you can disclose as much or little as you want – so if the US is involved, I imagine it is behind closed doors.”

Asia’s crush on carriers

East Asia is engaged in an arms race with China, India, Japan and both Koreas adding multiple new capabilities. Now, on the carrier front, South Korea is catching up with the neighbors.

China already has two operational heavy carriers, Liaoning (67,000 tonnes) and Shandong (70,000 tonnes), with a third under construction and expected to launch next year. India conducted sea trials of its latest carrier, the Vikrant (45,000 tonnes) his year.

Also this year, Japan converted its so-called “helicopter destroyer” Izumo (27,000 tonnes) into a light carrier capable of operating F35B stealth fighters, with work underway on a second.

Preliminary reports of the South Korean ship’s displacement vary from 30,000-40,000 tonnes. It could field as many as 20 F35Bs.  

A local aircraft carrier has been championed by President Moon Jae-in, who is pushing self-reliance in both defense and the local defense industry.

Chinese commanders of the People’s Liberation Army Navy direct J-15 fighter jets to take off from China’s aircraft carrier, The Liaoning, during a naval exercise in the western Pacific on April 20, 2018. Photo: AFP

He has also been promoting the transfer of OPCON – operational control of the South Korean armed forces – from its long-held US command to local command. However, as he is leaving office in March 2022, the build of the carrier and the eventual transfer of OPCON will be realized by his successors.

Still, Moon will certainly leave a legacy in the South Korean defense sector.

He won the lifting of a long-held cap on missile range applied by the US during his May summit with President Joe Biden. The fruits of that became clear within months, after South Korea publicly and successfully tested submarine-launched ballistic missiles.  

The test launch of a satellite delivery rocket was less successful, but the height reached by the delivery vehicle suggests that Seoul now has the capability to create intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

It is not clear who these over-the-horizon assets are aimed at, given the close geographical proximity of North Korea. Similar questions hang over the CVX – the future of which carrier will lie in the hands of the next president, who will take office in May, following a March election.

In a divergence from the global norm, liberal South Korean presidents tend to be more expeditionary and independent-minded on defense affairs. For example, the long-running OPCON transfer originated under Moon’s personal mentor, the late President Roh Moo-hyun, who held office from to 2003-2008.

Conservative presidents have tended to cleave closely to the country’s alliance with the US as a panacea for all defense issues. That may explain the slow pace of OPCON transfer during the two conservative administrations which fell between Roh and Moon.

Super weapon or gin palace?

There is considerable debate over how – or even whether – an aircraft carrier slots into South Korean defense doctrine.

“Those who believe in this need say we could support international operations beyond the Korean coastal areas,” Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general, told Asia Times.

President Moon Jae-in has ambitious plans for the South Korean military. Photo: AFP

However, it is not clear what those might be. South Korea, since the Vietnam War, has taken part in multiple peace-keeping missions, including in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Red Sea and South Sudan, but has avoided entanglement in kinetic campaigns.

When it comes to humanitarian operations, the ROKN is already blue-water capable. “We have helicopter landing carriers, which looks a lot like a light aircraft carrier, to do those kinds of thing,” Chun said.

But there is another argument. The carrier’s promoters say it has a deterrent effect against North Korea, as it adds an element of offshore survivability to the national F35 fleet.

Promoters of the plan “say land-based air bases are vulnerable to a first-strike attack from North Korea,” Chun said. “So this could be a good safe haven.”  

Yet critics of aircraft carriers argue that their huge size makes them especially vulnerable to missile and submarine threats. And North Korea, which specializes in missile technology, boats surface-to sea missiles, and also fields a large, if low-tech, submarine fleet.

But beyond the hard power represented by military gear, there is also soft power. And for a nation that seeks to raise its profile on distant shores, an aircraft carrier has real applicability.

“Aircraft carriers are a sort of diplomatic tool that show off capability and global reach,” said the source familiar with naval affairs. He noted that the ability to dock in foreign ports and host cocktail parties on the flight deck at sunset was an issue in the build of the UK’s two latest carriers.

“Port visibility capability was a big factor in the British design, as a big argument for a conventional-powered ship is that a nuclear-powered ship can’t go to many places,” he said – listing as regional examples Japan, New Zealand and Australia, all of which prohibit the docking of atomic vessels.

(Albeit, a policy change is anticipated in the latter, which, following the AUKUS deal, will gain nuclear-powered submarines.)

Much is likely to happen in both South Korea and the wider world in the dozen years it will take for the carrier to transition from drawing board to seaborne operations.

“A lot depends on what kind of nation Korea wants to be in 12 years’ time,” said the source.

Even Chun, an opponent of the plan, admits the carrier will be a “prestige vessel” – a crown jewel and a technological leap for the local shipbuilding/defense sector.

“It could contribute to developing indigenous defense technologies,” he said. “I hope we get something out of it.”

Even so, the retired general added: “The logic is not convincing to me.”

He said he would prefer that the money be invested on lower-profile, more everyday kit – such as logistics assets and the sustainability of military stockpiles.