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South Korea's Second Dokdo-class Assault Carrier and the Future of the ROKN

 
 

On Monday, Hanjin Heavy Industries launched Marado, the second of the Dokdo-class assault carriers. Like her sister, Marado is named after an offshore island, a 0.12 square mile formation off the south coast of the Republic of Korea (ROK). The island has around 90 permanent inhabitants, but is not generally considered disputed territory. This represents an improvement over Dokdo; the disputed island chain (also claimed by Japan) is smaller in total territory (less than a tenth of a square mile collectively) and has fewer people (about 50).

Displacing 18,000 tons at full load, Marado can make 23 knots and carry 10 helicopters, as well as 720 marines and associated ground combat vehicles. Dokdo entered service in 2007; Marado should join the ROKN by 2020. A planned third ship was reportedly cancelled.  With only short-range missile defenses (two Goalkeeper CIWS guns and one RIM-116 SAM launcher), Marado will rely on a support group of destroyer and frigates for defense.

Recent months have seen speculation about the deployment of the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter on board Dokdo and Marado, but the ships are probably too small to usefully employ such aircraft. Moreover, they would both require significant modification to handle the fighters, including expanded hanger space, command and control updates, and extra flight-deck protection. Currently Dokdo operates UH-1 and UH-60 helicopters, although South Korea is working on an update of the KAI KUH-1 Surion, specialized for naval purposes. It is unclear whether South Korea will follow the lead that some other navies have taken in equipping the Dokdo class with dedicated attack helicopters.

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Although South Korea has not suggested any specific plans for exporting the type, the Dokdo class could potentially enjoy some success on the export market, especially to navies in South America and Southeast Asia. The flexibility of the ships, combined with the complex maritime environments of those regions, could prove enticing.

Marado and Dokdo occupy an odd place in South Korea’s strategic plan. As amphibious warfare vessels, they can handle a wide variety of duties, including sea control, anti-submarine warfare, amphibious assault, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief. At the same time, they do not speak to the core, enduring security problem faced by South Korea; the existence of North Korea, its army, its ballistic missiles, and its nuclear weapons. In a sense, the Dokdos represent an effort (symbolic or no) to move past the confrontation with North Korea, and become a “normal” country.

The Dokdos could conceivably represent a jumping off point for a larger carrier. Japan constructed the Hyuga-class helicopter destroyers before moving on to the much larger Izumo class. Moreover, both Italy and Spain have managed STOVL carriers on a displacement similar to that of the Dokdos. South Korea is wealthy enough and has a sufficiently robust shipbuilding industry to try its hand at larger carriers, although the core problem will remain coming up with a strategic rationale for spending a lot of money of expeditionary maritime capabilities.

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