F-35A purchase raises questions about South Korea’s carrier program

Republic of Korea Navy CVX aircraft carrier concept. RoK Navy Image

South Korea is set to buy 20 new F-35A Block 4 Lightning II stealth fighters for the Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF), raising questions about the future of the southern carrier program -Korean.

A decision is expected to be announced later this month, according to local media, with the aircraft expected to be introduced no earlier than the mid-2020s. But these plans point to a broader shift in South Korea’s defense posture. and signal a shift in threat priorities seen from Seoul.

There is speculation that the advancement of the F-35A project will come at the expense of the Republic of Korea Navy (RoKN) plans to acquire a 30,000t light aircraft carrier – dubbed CVX – and a similar accompanying number of about 20 F-Variant 35B short take-off and vertical landing aircraft.

The RoKAF’s stealth F-35As are designed to be used as preemptive strike and counterattack assets that will target North Korean military installations, nuclear weapons launch facilities and storage sites. This highlights potential threats directly on the Korean peninsula and South Korea’s unstable neighbor. The RoKAF already has 40 F-35A Block 3 aircraft in service.

Meanwhile, a light aircraft carrier is designed for operations against more distant threats in support of South Korea’s expeditionary operations further afield. The decision to purchase the F-35As will likely mean a delay in the CVX purchase. Both sets of aircraft are valued at around $3 billion.

The change in priorities is the result of the recent change of government in Seoul, where, following the March elections, President Yoon Suk-yeol of the People’s Power Party replaced former President Moon Jae-in of the People’s Power Party. Democratic Republic of Korea. .

Kim Jae Yeop, senior defense researcher at Sungkyun Institute for Global Strategy (SIGS) at Sungkyunkwan University, told USNI News that CVC had been a “historic project” for Moon “who actively sought to broaden the scope of Korean defense modernization beyond Pyongyang’s threats.

Two F-35A Lightning IIs from the 354th Fighter Wing, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, take off from a KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 117th Air Refueling Squadron, Forbes Field Air National Guard Base, Kansas, above the ‘Indo-Pacific, March 10, 2022. U.S. Air Force Photo

Kim explained that one of the drivers of this expansion was to allow the RoKN to stand up to Japan following trade disputes and a naval clash in the East Sea in 2019. Moon wanted the navy to have its own aircraft carrier to take on the naval power of Japan after deciding to convert its two Izumo-class helicopter carriers into light aircraft carriers.

As a result, South Korea has invested in Aegis-capable destroyers, new classes of submarines and a pair of Landing Platform Helicopter (LPH) amphibious assault ships over the past two decades.

Yoon seems to have very different priorities for defense modernization.

“His government considers it more important and urgent to strengthen deterrence on Pyongyang’s growing arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles,” Kim said.

That would mean the F-35A decision is the best option, Kim said. However, the RoKAF is limited by older aircraft.

The RoKAF has over 400 aircraft in its inventory, but these include over 100 F-4 Phantom and F-5 fighters from the 1970s and 1980s.

“These fighters are responsible for the loss of Air Force pilots due to a number of flying accidents,” Kim said.

These will be replaced by the introduction of locally built aircraft, the KF-21 from 2026 and the FA-50 light fighter as well as the F-35, he said.

The CLC decision has been controversial since its announcement in the Medium Term Defense Plan (MTDP) 2021-2025 published in 2020. It is the centerpiece of the RoKN’s ambition to become a high seas navy. failed to secure funding, despite a memorandum of understanding signed in October 2021 between Korean Aerospace Industries and Hyundai Heavy Industries to design and develop CVX.

Kim said he believed that because it was assumed CVC would conduct operations in and around the Korean Peninsula, such as along North Korea’s coastlines or near disputed islands like Dokdo (or Liancourt Rocks ), it was not the best use of an expensive asset. when alternatives were available.

The RoKN will likely need to highlight the advantage of a light carrier in order to have more support for the program, Kim said.

“This includes CLC’s contribution to multinational missions with the US Navy and other regional allies and partners,” he said. “In this case, CLC can play a bigger role in dealing with the maritime threat from China, rather than Japan.”

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