Military approves plan to build aircraft carrier by 2033
The South Korean military approved a 2-trillion-won ($1.8 billion) plan to construct a light aircraft carrier for the Navy by 2033, Korea’s arms procurement agency announced Monday.
The defense project promotion committee, presided over by Minister of National Defense Suh Wook, earmarked a total of 2.03 trillion won for designing and building the vessel starting from next year until its deployment in 2033, said the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA).
The ship is needed to rapidly respond to diverse security threats and deter provocations in waters prone to disputes, the committee explained.
Such a rationale suggests that the purpose behind the carrier is not only to deter threats stemming from North Korea, but also those from neighboring powers such as China and Japan.
As one of the most ambitious military buildup projects in Korean history, the carrier plan aims to make South Korea one of only a handful of countries capable of carrying out large-scale maritime and aerial operations far beyond its shores.
Though yet to be ascertained, the carrier will likely have a displacement of around 30,000 tons and will be able to host vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft.
The budget allocated for the project covers design, construction and armament costs, but does not include expenditures for the purchase of combat aircraft to be deployed on the vessel, DAPA said.
The combat aircraft model to be based on the vessel will likely be Lockheed Martin’s F-35B, which are capable of short takeoff and vertical landing. Military officials in Seoul last year said the country plans to purchase 20 F-35B jets from the United States as part of an 8-trillion-won deal that also includes 20 F-35As.
This will likely bring the total cost needed to turn the carrier operational at around 6 trillion won — a sum igniting debate about the plan’s cost effectiveness.
Lawmakers clashed at a National Assembly defense committee over the carrier plan last year, leading to the share of this year’s 52.8-trillion-won defense budget allocated to the carrier slashed down to only around 100 million won.
According to DAPA, the Defense Ministry has contracted professional researchers to assess the necessity of building a carrier in an effort to build public consensus toward the plan.
A feasibility study for the project by the Finance Ministry is also forthcoming before a complete tally of expenditures for the project is finalized, a DAPA official added.
But the financial overheads of building such a ship may not be the only calculation Seoul needs to undertake. To obtain the practical capabilities and knowhow to operate a carrier, South Korea’s Navy will require assistance from the United States. U.S. support was critical in Britain and Italy’s acquisition and deployment of their aircraft carriers and F-35Bs.
Whether Washington will extend similar support to Seoul’s bid to build its own carrier still remains a question, in light of the suspicions the project has raised for the other key U.S. ally in the region — Japan. With the United States counting on defense cooperation between South Korea and Japan as a bulwark against a growing military threat from China, the Korean carrier plan may further complicate the security calculus for the Pentagon’s defense planners.
BY LEE CHUL-JAE, SHIM KYU-SEOK [firstname.lastname@example.org]
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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