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Aircraft Carriers or Not? Flattops in the Pacific

A number of countries are building amphibious ships with the potential to operate fixed-wing aircraft. Could an arms race ensue?

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

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

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.

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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

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.

It was already widely expected that China will be building more carriers after the Liaoning. In late July 2013, photos surfaced of a module of what appears to be an aircraft carrier under construction. The existence of a trench near an edge of the module fuelled speculation that this carrier will be equipped with a CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery) system, which China is very keen on developing for its future carrier fleet. However, another image of the Liaoning on a visit to Dalian on further sea trials appears to show a carrier’s bow section being built in the background. Interestingly, this looks to be another STOBAR design, with the gradient for a ski jump being quite obvious despite the module being in the shadows.

In the absence of concrete information, speculation is that the module seen in Shanghai is either a mock-up or construction model built to test and demonstrate the building capabilities of the shipyard to the PLAN. Still other reports have stated that the module is part of the reported Type 081 amphibious assault ship, similar to the U.S Navy’s Tarawa-class Landing Helicopter Assault (LHA) ship. The new class will reportedly displace between 30-40,000 tons according to different sources, carry four hovercraft and up to 20 helicopters. Commissioning date is believed to be 2015.

With the Liaoning training up a core of naval and air crew, developing tactics and establishing a doctrine in carrier operations while further carriers are being built, there is little doubt China looks set to be the regional carrier power in the near future.

Japan

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Of all the nations deploying flattops in the Asia-Pacific, undoubtedly the most controversial has been Japan’s. Suspicion runs deep in the region about Japan’s true intentions despite its pacifist postwar constitution specifically banning the nation from deploying offensive weapons, fuelled by lingering anger over what is perceived as Japan’s failure to fully atone for its actions in World War II. With this in mind, the outcry that accompanied each launch of a Japanese flattop, classified as Helicopter-Destroyers (DDH) by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), is always predictable. But that hasn’t stopped Japan from being the Asia-Pacific nation with the most flight deck-equipped ships, with four in service or being built.

The JMSDF commissioned the Hyuga and her sister Ise in 2009 and 2011 respectively. Displacing 13,950 tons standard and 19,000 tons fully loaded, the ships are equipped with enhanced command-and-control capabilities, allowing them to serve as flagships for the JMSDF. The ships' primary mission is to function as an anti-submarine warfare carrier, and four landing spots for helicopters are provided for on the flight deck, although a maximum of 11 can be carried. The irregular plan form of the flight deck and the location of the forward Phalanx Close-In Weapon System would preclude the Hyuga-class from operating fixed-wing aircraft without a substantial flight deck redesign. The normal helicopter complement is three Sikorsky SH-60K Seahawk antisubmarine helicopters and a single Agusta-Westland MCH-101 Merlin airborne mine countermeasures helicopter; however this can vary depending on the mission.

The JS Hyuga was heavily involved in the HADR effort after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011. In June 2013, she became the first JMSDF ship to operate the Boeing MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft during the Dawn Blitz exercise with the U.S. Marine Corps off the coast of California.

On August 6, 2013, Japan followed up with the launch of the JS Izumo, the lead ship of an even larger DDH design. Displacing 19,500 ton empty and 27,000 tons fully loaded, the Izumo and her as-yet unnamed sister will be the largest ships in the JMSDF inventory. Like the Hyuga and Ise before her, the Izumo will also be tasked primarily with anti-submarine warfare. The flight deck has five helicopter landing spots that allow simultaneous landings or take-offs, with a maximum complement of 14 helicopters theoretically possible.

Expected to be commissioned in 2015, the Izumo’s flight deck does appear to be more easily configurable to operate fixed-wing aircraft than the Hyuga class. Unsurprisingly, the Izumo’s launch has sparked controversy, having been described by the Chinese as an “aircraft-carrier in disguise.” The fact that neither the Izumo nor Hyuga-class ships are equipped with well docks for landing craft would have increased suspicion that they are designed specifically for aircraft operations.

South Korea

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

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

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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.