Aircraft Carriers or Not? Flattops in the Pacific
Image Credit: REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Adam K. Thomas

Aircraft Carriers or Not? Flattops in the Pacific


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.


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.

December 5, 2013 at 07:48

is here a classic “good news, bad news”?

Brett Champion
September 29, 2013 at 22:49

Even if these countries do build carriers or retrofit their current carriers to carry fixed-wing or VSTOL attack aircraft, it's highly unlikely that their existence would result in conflict. Carriers are expensive and hard to build. These countries would likely treat their carriers like Faberge eggs and not place them in harm's way unless absolutely necessary.

Only China currently has the combination of wealth and size that would permit the construction of a navy based on multiple carrier groups. And it is decades away from being able to do so anyway.

Little Helmsman
September 14, 2013 at 05:29


Silly Bill, could you tell me when or where has the DF 21D ever acually sunk any real air craft carrier?  Just one please!  Things on paper sounds cool but in actuality in a combat environment is another matter.  China has a history and reputation for faking things!  I will believe the effectiveness of China's weapons when it actually becomes operational.  


Btw, do you think the USN are so blind as to not develop a counter measure for this type of contingency?  Air craft carriers are expensive and require extensive defenses to protect this investment.  

Why Chinese are always boasting about their supposedly superior weapons when they have to rely on an outside power, Russia, for its most advanced hardware?  So silly! 

September 13, 2013 at 22:40

The DF 21 C is a land based missile that destroy land targets.  DF 21D is supposedly a land based missile that destroy moving targets such as aircraft carriers or destroyers.  You are claiming that DF 21D will not work.  Well, good luck if aircraft carriers come close to its range: 100 billion aircraft carrier pitting against a cheap medium range missiles.

TV Monitor
September 11, 2013 at 01:18

@ Bill888

Soviets tried to do this in the 70s, gave up. Americans wouldn't bother to try either, even if they are still working on one for fixed targets.

The reason that DF-21D wouldn't work in real world is because carriers are constantly moving at 30 knots. The DF-21D's warhead has one chance to get a lock at a carrier just before reentry, then it becomes a blind charge from that point on because the sensors do not work due to re-entry heat.

September 10, 2013 at 18:02

I'm hesitant to overegg the budgetary issues.  Growth now seems to be picking up and even with the recession inspired cuts the UK still has four billion pounds spare from overcutting which can be spent.  I expect for the time being that they'll stick with the 48 total and mix them with helicoptors.  However the UK is supposed to be able to use both carriers when necessary and 48 f35 isn't enough, even with partners such as the Italians contributing, so I expect it to be increased eventually.

As for the European drones they are currently tech demonstrators, not prototypes, so they may be modified to be carrier capable, even for STOVL carriers.  Not just the UK but also Spain and Italy use STOVL carriers and France doesn't have a carrier jet replacement after RafaleM.  Becoming completely dependent on the US for carrier strike isn't wise so I think there is some chance the European drones will be STOVL compatible.

September 10, 2013 at 14:32

Correction:  The purpose of the DF 21D is flying at mach 10 to create a hole on the aircraft  carrier so that no planes can take-off or landing

September 10, 2013 at 14:30

The DF21D is a non-sense?  The purpose of the DF 21D is flying at mach 10 to create a whole on the aircraft  carrier so that no planes can take-off or landing.  Given that it is a good possibility DF 21D will work to denial the aircraft carrier to enter a close zone to China, what is your reason that it is ineffective?

TV Monitor
September 10, 2013 at 12:55

@ Radwulf

Given the UK's budget problems, you can bet that the 45 units will be final, with no additioal purchases. 

Furthermore, the Royal Navy's Queen Elizabeth class carriers cannot carry any of European drones, because they cannot do vertical landing, and the Queen Elizabeth class carriers cannot be converted to CATOBAR configuration, as evident by the F-35B => F-35C => Back to F-35B after learning that the conversion cost 2 billion pounds.

TV Monitor
September 10, 2013 at 12:50

@ Mark Thomason

The US Navy's LHDs are long enough and are undergoing specific modifications to support F-35B operations.

However, the helicopter carriers that the author of this article mentions aren't long enough, nor are they equipped with active cooling at the landing spot needed to sustain the landing of F-35Bs.

Furthermore, two of three nations that the author mentions, Japan and Korea, are planning to go full carriers and not follow the F-35B STOVL path.


September 10, 2013 at 06:12

Well Heracles, prevailing UK politics may mean you are correct. But if the UK has no intention of ever deploying military and naval forces to the Asia-Pacific region then it should formally withdraw from FPDA obligations.

September 10, 2013 at 04:25

I agree that the f35b is not very appropriate in the context.  Higher costs, lower range and lower loadout all limit the potential usefulness in a high threat environment full of high tech, often land based, A2A superiority fighters.  It was chosen in the UK partly for path dependency reasons and partly because the UK expected to mostly be operating in the Greater Middle East where we have plenty of bases for Typhoon support and aerial refueling to deal with enemy fighters allowing the more flexible and versatile f35bs to lilly pad around to different bases (including the carrier) where they are most needed for striking duties.

The 48 f35s for the UK isn't the final buy but only the currently scheduled one.  The situation is complicated by the programme's problems and that it is a primarily American aircraft.  If the European Taranis/Neuron programmes come to something we'll want them to make up most of the complement, provided they are carrier capable.  

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