South Korea will build an aircraft carrier instead of the UDC

The proposed look of the LPX-II universal amphibious assault ship from HHI. Graphics

South Korea intends to develop and build a new ship with the ability to carry an aviation group. Last year it was reported that it would be a universal amphibious assault ship, and updated plans were published a few days ago. Now the South Korean Navy wants to get a light aircraft carrier with an air group in the form of foreign-made fighters.

Universal amphibious assault

The plans to build a promising UDC were first publicly announced in July 2019.The command of the Republic of Korea is concerned about the growth in the number and combat capabilities of the navies of neighboring countries and intends to take symmetrical measures. One of them is the development and construction of a promising large landing ship. The corresponding work was started within the framework of the LPX-II program (the LPH-II index is also used).

According to the first reports, the UDC LPX-II will have to have a displacement of approx. 30 thousand tons, which is twice the displacement of the existing ships of the “Tokto” type. On the deck and in the hangar, 16 Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II fighters were required. The holds should accommodate 3 thousand places for the marines and up to 20 main tanks or other equipment.

According to the plans of the command, the coming years will be spent on competitive design with the subsequent development of a technical project. Construction of the LPX-II will begin in the late twenties. The ship will be commissioned by the Navy at the beginning of the next decade.

LPX-II as an aircraft carrier. Graphics of the Navy of the Republic of Kazakhstan

As it became known later, the possibility of building light and medium aircraft carriers with certain features was considered. However, the simultaneous work on aircraft carriers and UDC was considered impossible, and the landing direction received priority. The question of building aircraft carriers was proposed to be resolved in the future. However, certain forces in the South Korean command continued to insist on the need for the priority construction of aircraft carriers.

Change of concept

In mid-October, the Navy chose a preliminary design for further development. The design contract was awarded to Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI). The main requirements and terms of the contract coincide with the previously announced plans. However, recently it became known about the recent revision of the key provisions of the entire program.

The project for the development of the armed forces for 2021-25 was published.According to this document, the goal of the LPX-II project is no longer the construction of the UDC. Now the Navy wants to get a light aircraft carrier – with the same aircraft and in the same quantity, but without cargo decks and landing rooms. Thus, the supporters of the construction of aircraft carriers still won the dispute, albeit with a noticeable delay.

However, it is not entirely clear what the victory of the aircraft carrier direction is connected with. The idea of ​​building a multipurpose ship with an amphibious assault force in the hold and aircraft on deck has a number of advantages over the concept of a “clean” aircraft carrier. At the same time, an aircraft-carrying ship without a landing is also not devoid of advantages, which, most likely, became decisive.

It is curious that the change in the class of the future ship does not affect some of the basic requirements for it. So, the displacement, dimensions and aviation group are planned to remain at the same level proposed for the UDC. The terms of development, construction and commissioning were not revised either – the aircraft carrier will enter service in 10-12 years.

UDC “Tokto” at the joint exercises of the Navy of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the United States, 2010. Photo by US Navy

In early August, it became known about the start of work in the context of the aviation group. Navy specialists will have to determine the optimal number of aircraft on board. After the completion of these studies, negotiations on the purchase of equipment will begin. As before, the LPX-II is expected to carry approx. 20 F-35B aircraft.

Technical features

The new document sets out the basic requirements for the future aircraft carrier. In addition, the approximate appearance of such a ship has been published. As the design progresses, it may change, but the general provisions are clear already now.

A promising light aircraft carrier should have a standard displacement of 30 thousand tons and a total displacement of up to 40 thousand tons. This will make it the largest ship in the South Korean Navy. It is necessary to provide high running characteristics and the ability to work in the ocean area. The type and parameters of the power plant have not been specified – perhaps they have not yet been determined.

The published image shows the ship with a large rectangular flight deck and a superstructure to starboard. There is no springboard, but a catapult can be used. It should be noted that last year’s aircraft carrier designs provided for an angular deck not found on the LPX-II.

The aircraft carrier of a new type is being created for short take-off and vertical landing fighters, as well as for helicopters. The basis of the aviation group will be no more than 20-25 F-35B fighters. Helicopters for various purposes will also be used. For storage of equipment, a hangar deck with an onboard aircraft lift is provided.

Helicopter landing on the Dokdo deck. Photo Wikimedia Commons

The composition of electronic equipment and weapons is not named. The required crew size and other features of the ship also remain unknown. It is expected that the LPX-II will have broad operational capabilities – but it will not yet be possible to assess them with sufficient accuracy.

Aircraft carrier prospects

Currently, the capabilities of the Republic of Korea Navy to use carrier-based aircraft are very limited. Many ships of different types are capable of carrying only one helicopter. Only two UDCs of the Dokto project have wider possibilities – up to 10-15 helicopters. There are no aircraft carriers and carrier-based aircraft for various purposes.

For further development, they consider it necessary to build both UDC and “clean” aircraft carriers, but this is impossible. Therefore, last year they decided to develop the amphibious fleet, temporarily abandoning the aircraft carrier. However, just a year later, the plans were revised – now HHI is developing an aircraft carrier without the possibility of landing.

It should be noted that the construction of an aircraft carrier does not negate the need to develop the amphibious direction. UDC “Tokto” was accepted into the Navy in 2007, and the second ship of this type, “Marado”, began service just a few weeks ago. By the time the future LPX-II appears, the age of the head UDC will exceed 20 years, and the issue of its replacement will need to be resolved. It could have been the LPX-II ship in its original configuration if the Navy had not changed their plans.

The South Korean UDC takes the LCAC boat into the dock. Photo by US Navy

If the current plans remain in effect, then in the early thirties, the South Korean Navy will receive its first aircraft carrier. It will be a light ship with a limited air group and corresponding combat capabilities, but the appearance of a fundamentally new combat unit will have a positive effect on the potential of the fleet as a whole.

The fleet will be armed with three full-fledged aircraft carriers. Two will be able to work only with helicopters and land troops, and the third will take on board carrier-based fighters. Despite the limited number of ships and aircraft, such a grouping will seriously increase the potential of the Navy.

The promising aircraft carrier LPX-II will be able to work in the same groups with other surface ships and perform a wide range of missions to combat surface and coastal targets. It is also possible to work jointly with landing ships of various types; primarily to support the landing force.

Variability of plans

At the moment, the LPX-II project is at the stage of shaping the overall appearance of the future ship, taking into account the updated customer requirements. In the near future, technical design will begin, construction will start in the second half of the decade, and in 10-12 years the fleet will receive its first aircraft carrier.

However, all this will happen within the specified time frame only if the Navy does not change its requirements again. Just a year ago, it was planned to build a landing ship, and now a light aircraft carrier will be made instead. Time will tell whether these plans will be kept or they will be revised again. Moreover, any scenario does not threaten the South Korean Navy. In any case, they will be able to get a modern ship of the required class.

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