The Pacific region—for this article, the line of nations bordering the Pacific Ocean stretching from Australia to Japan and the Korean Peninsula—has in the past decade or so witnessed a surge in the number of naval ships sporting a “through deck” design to allow flight operations to be conducted from their flight decks. Usually classified as amphibious ships or helicopter destroyers/cruisers, they had mostly escaped serious scrutiny in the mainstream consciousness. Until the past few weeks, that is, when a series of events thrust these vessels into global news headlines.
Excluding the United States’ two forward-deployed flattops—the USS George Washington and the USS Bonhomme Richard—in Japan, there are now at least eleven such ships planned, being built or in service among the Asia-Pacific’s navies as of today. These ships are officially described as being designed for amphibious operations, while their ability to operate helicopters will also be useful in anti-submarine warfare and to provide aid in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations. Still, most are a refit away from (or in China’s case, already capable of) operating fixed-wing aircraft, sparking fears of an arms race against the backdrop of simmering territorial disputes in the region.
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Australia is currently building two 27,800-ton Canberra-class Landing Helicopter Docks (LHDs) under Joint Project 2048. The ships, HMAS Canberra (LHD-02) and HMAS Adelaide (LHD-01) are based on the Spanish Navy’s Juan Carlos I built by Spain’s Navantia. The design was the winner of a competition with France’s Direction des Constructions Navales (DCN), which offered a larger version of the Mistral class design.
The HMAS Canberra is currently being completed at BAE Systems – Maritime in Melburne after having been initially laid down in Spain and transported by sea to Australia. She will enter service with the Royal Australian Navy in 2014 while her sister ship will join her two years later. The LHDs will replace the HMAS Tobruk and the Kanimbla-class ships in mainly conducting amphibious operations with a secondary HADR brief.
The Canberra class vessels boast a length of 230.82 metres (757.3 ft), with a maximum beam of 32 metres (105 ft) and maximum draught of 7.08 metres (23.2 ft). Maximum speed is 20 knots, and the LHDs will sport four Rafael Typhoon 25 mm remote weapons systems, six 12.7 mm machine guns, an AN/SLQ-25 Nixie towed torpedo decoy, and a Nulka missile decoy.
The LHDs will be able to carry 1,046 soldiers and their equipment. Two vehicle decks (one for light vehicles, the other for heavy vehicles and tanks) can accommodate up to 110 vehicles. Each ship has a well deck for landing craft, while the flight deck has landing spots for six NH90-class helicopters or four CH-47 Chinook-class helicopters to operate simultaneously. The ships are equipped with a 13° ski jump retained from the Juan Carlos I design, although Australia has no plans to operate fixed-wing aircraft from these ships. The standard air group will typically be a mix of MRH-90 transport helicopters and S-70B Seahawk anti-submarine helicopters. The hangar can accommodate up to 18 helicopters, but eight will be the standard complement.
China is unique in the operators of flight decks in the region in that it is the only regional country to currently operate fixed-wing aircraft from its carriers. The People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLAN) is currently operating the Liaoning, originally destined to be a Admiral Kuznetsov-class multirole aircraft carrier for the Soviet Navy. After an epic history—at one point, it was supposed to become a floating casino—the ship put to sea on August 10, 2011 for the first of several sea trials. The Liaoning is currently based at Qingdao, home of the PLAN’s North Sea fleet, where it operates as a training ship.
It is still unclear what Liaoning’s air wing will look like, but a clue may lie in the 30-strong complement of the Kuznetsov-class. The Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark, a Chinese-built navalized derivative of the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker, has been seen operating on board during the numerous sea trials. As the Liaoning utilizes the STOBAR (Short Take Off Barrier Recovery) method of operating aircraft, heavier aircraft like the JZY-01 carrier-borne AEW under development will not be able to operate from the ship. J-15 operations on board the Liaoning will also be curtailed by fuel and payload limitations due to the ship’s STOBAR configuration. Rotary-wing assets include the Changhe Z-8, which also has an AEW variant, and possibly the Kamov Ka-27 Helix.