Hardware mattersEarlier this week, I had an opportunity to observe the USS Ronald Reagan, a nuclear-powered aircraft career of the U.S. Navy. After completing this year’s Korea-U.S. joint maritime drill in the waters near the Korean Peninsula from Oct. 10 to 15, it entered the port of Busan and a public viewing event was hosted. The dignity of the 104,200-ton aircraft carrier was great. On its deck and hangars, powerful F/A-18s were placed one after another.
As Carl von Clausewitz once concluded, defense power depends on a country’s will to fight and the unity of its people. No matter how strong weapons systems and capabilities are, they are nothing but scrap metal without a strong resolve to fight. The resolve was clear on the aircraft career.
As I toured a hanger, I saw an F/A-18 aircraft covered with the names of New York City firefighters who died during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It was an expression of the national will that no one is allowed to touch those names. After starting its operations in 2003, the aircraft carrier participated in the Afghanistan War and Iraq War. The runways are clearly marked by the tracks of fighter jets that took off from them. The carrier is named for the former American president who won the competition against the Soviet Union with strong resolve and brought about the collapse of the Communist bloc. Inside the carrier, a small museum commemorating Reagan is run.
The USS Ronald Reagan is the core capability of the U.S. 7th Fleet, which is in charge of the western Pacific and Indian Ocean. It is immediately dispatched when a conflict arises in Northeast Asia, including the Korean Peninsula. Along with Ticonderoga-class cruisers and six Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, it forms Carrier Strike Group 5 (CSG 5). In the area of its deployment, the radio traffic and communications of an enemy are reduced, indicating its incredible deterrence power. It may not be a coincidence that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had no public activities when it was participating in the drill.
Money is an important issue. The price of an aircraft carrier, the 80 aircraft on it and other systems total about 100 trillion won ($88.12 billion). A public affairs officer of the U.S. Navy said one cruiser alone received $7 million worth of expendable components for one voyage and about $30 million worth of components were onboard the carrier. The cost of owning and operating the entire carrier strike group is astronomical.
Demands have grown in Korea for a nuclear-powered submarine to counter the North’s asymmetrical capabilities, including submarine-launched ballistic missile technology. Hawks argue that we must have such big symbols of power to better defend our people. Some even say we also need an aircraft carrier, although maybe not a very large one. While we cherish the Korea-U.S. alliance, the country needs to secure its self-defense ability in the long term, they say.
I was reminded of India all of a sudden. India was ranked fourth on the 2016 military strength ranking created by Global Firepower. Among 126 countries around the world, the United States topped the list, followed by Russia and China. South Korea was ranked seventh last year, but dropped to 11th this year. Japan, in contrast, was ranked seventh, up from ninth. North Korea was ranked 25th this year and last. India, over the past years, improved its self-defense capabilities without depending on any particular outside country.
It is important to pay realize that India is an operator of aircraft carriers. There are 10 countries in the world that operate aircraft carriers. The United States operates 11, while the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Thailand, Brazil and China each operate one. Italy and Spain each operate two. So does India.
It purchased the 28,700-ton HMS Hermes from the British Royal Navy in 1987 and refurbished and renamed it as the INS Viraat. Recently, it purchased the 45,400-ton Gorshkov of the former Soviet Union and renamed it the INS Vikramaditya.
Next year, the INS Vikrant, a 40,000-ton aircraft carrier built with India’s own technology, will be commissioned. It is capable of carrying 12 Mig-29Ks and eight HAL Tejas fifth-generation fighter jets and 10 helicopters. By 2022, the 65,000-ton INS Vishal will be commissioned.
India’s capabilities are far more advanced than those of China, which purchased a 67,500-ton aircraft carrier from the former Soviet Union and renamed it the Liaoning. China is currently building a new aircraft carrier. India also developed its own nuclear-powered submarine and is test-operating it.
By developing its economic and military power simultaneously, India emerged as the titan of South Asia and developed the power to challenge China. And the United States approached it first. U.S. President Barack Obama met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi seven times over the past two years. That is a relationship that is growing in warmth, although it’s still not comparable to Korea-U.S. relations. Ahead of the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 8, Korea is being criticized in Washington for paying nothing to defend its security. That is an exaggeration, but it does suggest that it’s time to make some bold decisions.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 20, Page 32
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.