Bring back the light aircraft carrier project

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Bring back the light aircraft carrier project

Jeong Jae-hong
The author is an international affairs and security editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.

The Yoon Suk-yeol administration increased next year’s budget for national defense to 57 trillion won ($41.9 billion), up 4.6 percent from this year’s. But the sum does not include money for a light aircraft carrier. An official from the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) said, “That does not mean a suspension of the aircraft carrier project.” The DAPA will make a decision after a thorough review of the project, including verifying the requirements for fixed-wing aircraft capable of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) and checking the possibility of producing such fighter jets on our own, he added.

But the light carrier project could not even take off. When the majority Democratic Party (DP) unilaterally passed a budget for the light carrier project at the end of 2021, it included 7.2 billion won for a basic design of the carrier. But after the start of the Yoon administration on March 10, the government delayed public bidding for the basic design over and over and totally removed the 7.2-billion-won allotment from next year’s defense budget. The conservative administration most likely reached the conclusion that the light carrier project is not so cost-effective despite an input of a whopping 2 trillion won.

President Yoon often mentions the elevation of Korea to a “global pivotal state.” His vision could be materialized given that the country has the 10th largest economy, cutting-edge technologies in semiconductors and batteries, and cultural power as exemplified by K-pop. But if the goal is not backed by concrete policy, it becomes an empty slogan. Actions speak louder than words. The new government’s proclamation of a global pivotal state is not compatible with the scrapping of the aircraft carrier project.

The carrier project is an effective means to publicize Korea’s defense capabilities at home and abroad.

The superpower status of the United States mostly rests on its economic, diplomatic and military powers. The unrivalled strength of the U.S. Navy’s 11 carrier strike groups in particular symbolizes America’s power.

The argument that the U.S. can maintain its global supremacy for a considerable period of time despite China’s dramatic rise is mostly based on America’s unshakable strengths in aircraft carriers. The intermittent dispatch of the carrier strike groups under the U.S. Seventh Fleet to the Korean Peninsula at times of crisis served as an effective warning against additional provocations from North Korea.

A light aircraft carrier group consists of destroyers, frigates, submarines and reconnaissance assets. Without them, the aircraft carrier is vulnerable to missile and torpedo attacks from enemies at sea or on land. If Korea can secure a light aircraft carrier group, the country can exponentially raise its naval combat capability thanks to the augmentation of the navy’s ability to carry out maritime operations on its own and to escalation of the level of operations in joint drills with allies at sea. That’s why our navy desperately wants to have light aircraft carriers.

The carrier group is also useful to protect sea traffic amid the heated U.S.-China contest. If the sea routes are blocked, Korea heavily relying on maritime transportation is expected to suffer 310 billion won in losses each day. Protecting sea routes is a vital interest for Korea. In case China, currently bent on expanding its naval power, including aircraft carrier groups, threatens to block Korean vessels from using its essential sea routes, Korea’s light aircraft carrier could help guarantee the routes together with the U.S. Navy. The light carrier group also helps effectively respond to various types of security threats, like curbing terrorism, disaster relief, evacuation and transportation of Koreans overseas.

The small-sized carrier groups also contribute to deterring North Korean threats. If a war breaks out on the peninsula, they can advance to the upwards of the Yellow Sea and East Sea for its fighter-bombers to take off and strike on the rear areas of North Korea. The light carrier also can be used for massive landing operations together with other transportation vessels to critically hit the waist of North Korea. Because of the fear, North Korea must leave a considerable portion of its forces in the rear, which can significantly weaken its attack capability.

That’s not all. The light carrier project helps develop our defense industry. As the money for the project mostly goes to domestic industries, experts believe it can lead to the further advancement of Korea’s defense industry, growth in exports and creation of jobs — an efficient way to achieve the three goals at the same time.

Korea has the lowest birthrate in the world. Under such circumstance, a ground force-focused military operation is neither feasible nor desirable. Reinforcing our naval and air force power is a more efficient way to cope with North Korean military threats than by sticking with ground forces. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle must restore the budget for the light carrier project before it is too late.
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