South Korea launched the ROKS Dokdo in 2005 and commissioned it two years later. In a move that likely didn’t go down well in Tokyo, it took the Korean name of the islands at the center of a territorial dispute with Japan. A multi-purpose ship capable of handling a variety of missions, the Dokdo displaces 14,000 tons empty and 18,000 tons fully loaded. Three ships of the class were planned; however the third vessel was cancelled by a previous government. The second, the ROKS Marado, was to suffer the same fate, but funding was restored in 2012.
The Dokdo class is capable of carrying up to 720 marines and multiple vehicles, while a well dock allows for amphibious assaults. There are five landing spots on her flight deck able to operate helicopters the size of the Sikorsky S-70 Blackhawk/Seahawk, while the hangar can accommodate a maximum of 15 helicopters of various types. The Dokdo was designed specifically to conduct “Over the Horizon” amphibious operations, whereby amphibious landing operations with high-speed LCACs and helicopters are launched far from the landing beaches to minimize risks to the landing ship. Her versatility has been demonstrated in 2010, when she was part of a task force conducting search and locate operations for the corvette ROKS Cheonan, which had been sunk in a North Korean sneak attack.
It has been acknowledged that the Dokdo’s flight deck has been coated with urethane, which improves the ability of the flight deck to withstand the high temperatures of aircraft operations. However, like the JMSDF’s Hyuga-class, her irregular shaped flight deck and positioning of the forward CIWS would require extensive modification before fixed-wing aircraft could operate off her.
Thailand is the oldest operator of a current carrier in the Asia-Pacific. The HTMS Chakri Naruebet was constructed by Navantia in Spain and commissioned in March 1997. Similar to the Spanish carrier Principe de Asturias, it is fitted with a 12° ski jump to operate the Royal Thai Navy’s (RTN) fleet of AV-8S Matador (Harrier) jets. The Chakri Naruebet was originally for Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) surveillance and protection and search and rescue, but it could also be used for flagship command and control, air support for the Thai surface fleet or disaster relief.
Displacing almost 11,500 tons full load, the Chakri Naruebet is the smallest aircraft carrier currently in service. She was to operate a mixed air group of Matadors and S-70B Seahawk helicopters, with the RTN purchasing ten former Spanish aircraft for the purpose. However the Asian financial crisis of 1997 put paid to those ambitions, with a lack of funding confining the Chakri Naruebet to port most of the time. The Matador fleet has also suffered accordingly, with the fleet finally being withdrawn from RTN service in 2006.
In recent years the Chakri Naruebet has spent more time at sea, mostly to assist in HADR missions. She took part in relief operations in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, and in response to separate flooding incidents in late 2010 and early 2011. In 2012 Saab announced that it had received an order from the Royal Thai Navy for the upgrading of the Chakri Naruebet’s command and control system.
The F-35B Question
So are these ships aircraft carriers or not? If you (rightly) consider a helicopter an aircraft, then technically the answer is yes. But to describe these ships as aircraft carriers in the traditional sense of carrying fixed-wing aircraft for offensive purposes, things become murkier. The Liaoning and Chakri are undoubtedly intended to carry fixed-wing aircraft from the outset, even if the latter hasn’t done so for a long while now. However, the Canberra and Izumo-class ships, while having a flight deck capable of operating Short Take Off Vertical Landing (STOVL) jets such as the Lockheed-Martin F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, would still require significant modification before they could be operational in that sense.
For starters, the ships will require a thermal-resistant coating applied over the landing spots to protect the deck from the extreme temperatures during the F-35B’s landing cycle. Operating fast jets will also mean a large logistics support tail will require to be based on board the ship, with more hangar and storage room being taken by ammunition, spare parts and other support equipment and personnel required to support the jets. All this will require tradeoffs in space on board the ships, which will almost certainly compromise their ability to perform their other intended roles.
Another major stumbling block would be that using aircraft carriers in an offensive capacity requires the carrier itself to be escorted with its own battle group. Currently none of these Pacific navies have the warships, they have yet to fully develop the naval doctrine or tactics required, and they don’t have air and ground crews trained to operate in this way. This is all a huge undertaking, requiring years to carry through, even with help from current carrier operators such as the U.S. Navy. Other than China, none of these navies appear to have plans for this in the near future.
While some have questioned the utility of 12-16 F-35Bs on deck in a conflict, it must be considered that despite the bad press, a fully operational F-35 will represent a game-changer in air combat as we know it. Even a dozen of these aircraft, hypothetically operating from a mini-carrier escorted by a battle group in the vast Western Pacific, will pack serious combat capability and complicate the calculus for any adversary in any conflict. However, the fact is that neither Australia, Japan or South Korea are, or have budgeted for, acquiring the F-35B, even if the former two nations have signed up for the Conventional Take Off and Landing F-35A version.
This brings us to the age old issue: Money. With budgets under pressure in Australia or Japan, neither country is in a position to fund such radical changes in defense posture. Certain alarmist reports notwithstanding, the idea of aircraft carriers from regional countries trading blows in the western Pacific is, to use a maritime term, dead in the water.
Mike Yeo is a journalist at Baseleg Aviation News and Photography.