Good for Seoul, bad for Pyongyang.
Key point: Seoul has two helicopter carriers that would be perfect for the F-35B jump jet.
South Korea has launched its second amphibious assault ship.
On May 14, South Korean officials launched the second Dokdo-class helicopter carrier. The ceremony took place in Busan at the shipyard of Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction, the company that built the vessel. Among those in attendance were Defense Minister Song Young-moo and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Um Hyun-seong, according to local news outlets.
Construction of the second Dokdo-class amphibious assault ship, named Marado, began in 2016. The ship will be the second largest ship in the Republic of Korea’s Navy, after the first Dokdo-class ship. Displacing 14,500 tons, the ship has a width of thirty-one meters and a length of 199 meters. The Marado can also sail at speeds approaching forty-one kilometers per hour. According to Yonhap News Agency, “It has a 20-mm Phalanx close-in weapons system, as well, while the Dokdo [the first ship in the class] is installed with the 30-mm Goalkeeper gun.” The Marado will be delivered to the South Korean Navy in late 2020 following testing.
The lead vessel in the class was launched in 2005 and commissioned in 2007. At the time, South Korea intended to build three ships, but funding constraints caused Seoul to eventually cancel the third—and temporarily, the second one as well, but funding for that one was later restored. Media reports have said that the Dokdo-class vessels can operate fifteen helicopters and can transport around 700 marines (in addition to a crew of roughly 300 sailors).
Large amphibious assault ships like the Dokdo–class are sometimes referred to as “aircraft carriers in disguise.” This is certainly apt in the case of Japan’s Izumo-class helicopter destroyers. Those ships are roughly 250 meters (820 feet) long and displace 24,000 tons. The Izumos are about 50 percent bigger (in terms of displacement) than Japan’s previously largest ship, the Hyuga-class helicopter destroyer. Others have pointed out that the ships are actually larger than Spain and Italy’s short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft carriers.
While the Dokdos are not quite as big as the Izumos, they might also be considered an aircraft carrier in disguise. That’s because a few months back reports emerged that South Korea is thinking of refitting the vessels to be able to carry the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter. “I understand that the military top brass have recently discussed whether they can introduce a small number of F-35B fighters and operate them aboard the new ship that has already been deployed and one to be additionally built,” a South Korean military source told Yonhap News Agency in December of last year. Another South Korean source told the same paper that “considerations will continue about whether we can run F-35Bs by redesigning the decks of the Dokdo and the new ship that is being constructed.”
South Korea is already part of the Joint Strike Fighter program, having decided to buy forty F-35A fighters in 2014 for $6.75 billion. However, that is the conventional version of the fighter jets. By contrast, the F-35Bs have the short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) capability that would be necessary to operate the planes from the Dokdo-class ships. Thus, if South Korea decided to move forward with the plan outlined in the Yonhap report, it would have to purchase F-35Bs, along with reconfiguring the amphibious assault ships to carry fixed-wing aircraft.
Nor is Seoul the only country that is considering this action. In fact, South Korea’s interest in transforming the Dokdos into F-35B carriers only emerged after Japanese media reported that Tokyo was thinking of doing the same with its Izumos. Then, Turkey also expressed interest in adapting its amphibious assault ships to carry F-35Bs. None of these countries have actually purchased the F-35B, although Japanese military officials are getting a close up view of the plane thanks to current joint U.S.-Japanese training exercises.
Compared to the Izumos, the Dokdos would have to undergo significant renovations to be able to carry the F-35Bs—should Seoul purchase them. In fact, Robert Farley has suggested that the Dokdos probably could not be converted to F-35B carriers without losing their amphibious capabilities.
As I’ve mentioned before, it is not clear why these countries are interested in having carrier-type ships—since none of them plan on having blue water navies. In the case of Japan, it could simply be about dispersing their aircraft better to make them less vulnerable to Chinese conventional first strikes. Still, the F-35Bs short take-off capabilities would still be useful in that regard even if operated from land.
It is also possible that prestige is playing a significant role. Japan’s reported interest comes at a time when China’s navy is acquiring aircraft carriers for the first time. Seoul’s interest in an “aircraft carrier in disguise” came only days after Tokyo’s interest was reported. Thus, it is possible we’ll see something of an aircraft carrier domino effect. As Farley has pointed out, this might ultimately include Australia, which could convert its Canberra-class amphibious assault ships. Still, all this is extremely preliminary given that none of these countries have even moved to purchase the F-35B yet.
Zachary Keck is a former managing editor of the National Interest. He tweets @ZacharyKeck. This first appeared earlier in 2018.