A model of South Korea's CVX carrier project. Photo: HHI

Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) and LIG Nex1 signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) last month to develop key technologies for South Korea’s CVX light aircraft carrier project. In addition, Hanwha Systems will collaborate with HHI on developing the planned carrier’s combat systems.

HHI and Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) signed an MOU last October to cooperate on operation and control of aircraft, military support systems, training systems and tests and evaluations. Furthermore, in August last year, HHI and UK-based defense company Babcock signed a MOU for the latter to provide consultancy services on South Korea’s CVX project.

Babcock is also a major contractor for the UK’s Queen Elizabeth class carriers. Thus, it can be expected that South Korea’s CVX will have several similarities with the UK’s carriers, notably the twin island design.  

South Korea’s aircraft carrier ambitions are driven by reasons of military necessity and national prestige. In terms of military necessity, South Korea’s airbases and major military bases are easily within reach of North Korea’s missile forces, thus the CVX project may provide a survivable platform for command and control and retaliatory strikes against Pyongyang.

The fact that Japan and China are building their own carriers combined with doubts about future US military commitment likely contributed to South Korea’s decision to pursue such an ambitious project.

Moreover, the CVX could also enable South Korea to play a larger role in Indo-Pacific alliances, working with allied navies to maintain freedom and security of navigation in contested areas such as the South China Sea.

The carrier’s ultimate fate, however, lies in the hands of South Korea’s next government, with a presidential election due on Wednesday. The left-wing candidate, Lee Jae-myung, may look more favorably toward the project given that leftist administrations in South Korea have traditionally sought more independent defense postures.

The right-wing candidate, Yoon Seuk-youl, is all for tightening the Korea-US alliance – and the US is already plentifully supplied with carriers. 

Politics aside, critics of the CVX project argue that it is too vulnerable to land-based missiles, submarines, and aircraft. They also question the need for a carrier when all of North Korea’s airfields and military bases are within reach of South Korean land-based aircraft.

Critics also add that the project is driven more by national prestige concerns than military necessity, a push to outdo Japan some refer to as “techno-nationalism.” Apart from that, the prestige factor afforded by aircraft carriers to the South Korean Navy may be factors in the country’s push to acquire such a platform.

With the CVX project, South Korea aims to join the list of Indo-Pacific nations investing in aircraft carriers. This includes Japan with its “helicopter destroyers” in the Hyuga and Izumo classes, China’s ex-Soviet Varyag class and its improved derivatives, India’s Vikrant and Vikramaditya carriers, Thailand’s Chakri Naruebet and Australia’s Canberra class landing helicopter dock.

At present, aircraft carriers are considered the most valuable naval asset, enabling the projection of tactical air power over long distances. Their mobility throughout the world’s oceans is safeguarded by international law regarding freedom of navigation, overflight and right of innocent passage in territorial waters.

Also, as carriers are essentially mobile airbases, they do not require sensitive political negotiations and compromises to operate combat aircraft from foreign airfields.

They are also potent diplomatic symbols, with their high visibility and imposing looks making them an ideal naval diplomacy platform to signal the threat of force to adversaries, to reassure allies and partners, assist in military operations other than war, and serve as symbols of national prestige.

However, there may be signs that the aircraft carrier may be going the way of the battleship in terms of obsolescence. As with battleships, aircraft carriers are tremendously expensive naval assets, requiring significant national resources and time to build, operate and maintain.

That said, the proliferation of anti-ship missiles, naval mines and torpedoes mean that such expensive assets can be destroyed with vastly cheaper weapons. To put that into perspective, China’s DF-21 “carrier killer” missile costs a mere fraction of, say, the USS Gerald R Ford-class supercarrier.

In addition, aircraft carriers are increasingly vulnerable to improving conventional and nuclear-powered submarines. In a 2015 naval exercise, the French Rubis-class nuclear-powered submarine Saphir sank the USS Theodore Roosevelt along with several of its escorting warships.

A prelude to this incident occurred in 2005, when a Swedish Gotland-class conventional submarine sank the USS Ronald Reagan in a naval exercise.