South Korea Builds an F-35-Enabled Amphibious Ship: How to Shape a Task Force?

By Robbin Laird

By Robbin Laird

The South Koreans have announced that they will build an F-35B enabled light carrier.

The LPX-11 is expected to displace around 40,000 tons fully loaded.  An original design concept had a ski jump like the Queen Elizabeth carrier, but the latest rendition does not have this feature. The ship is projected to become the flagship of a task force.

The question of how it would work as the lead of a task force poses significant questions with regard to how South Korea will configure the ship and work integrability with its fleet and those of its allies. In 2019, the South Koreans released their Navy Vision 2045 plan. In addition to the light carrier, the plan envisaged a 5,000-ton weapons barge which is visualized in the featured graphic above.

The South Korean Navy is building out its submarine capabilities as well its KDX-IIII destroyers.

Naval programs of the Ministry of National Defense, 2021-2025, Mid-term Acquisition Plan.

Currently, there are only two operational models with regard to how to do so.

The first is being developed by the Queen Elizabeth carrier, but it is a much larger ship and is being built around its ability to work with both the surface and subsurface fleet being developed by the Royal Navy.

In my visit to Portsmouth in 2018, I discussed how the Royal Navy was thinking through the nature of a Queen Elizabeth led task force.  A clear element of this effort is to shape a carrier led maritime task force for blue water operations, and secondarily, as an amphibious led task force operational template.

This is currently being seen in the Atlantic as the HMS Queen Elizabeth is leading a carrier strike group. A clear challenge in the decade ahead will be adding the supporting capabilities needed to make full use of carrier strike.

A key element of the UK approach relevant to South Korea, clearly is the expectation that the F-35s onboard the UK carrier will be able to work with land-based Typhoons and other air delivered assets to get the full impact from carrier led operations.

But the size of this carrier, and the weapons load outs which it can carry as well as the number of F-35s is much higher than the South Korean light carrier.

More relevant is the case of the USS America class both in terms of numbers of F-35s and the amphibious and carrier strike mix to be carried onboard and the approach to shaping an amphibious strike group.

It is to the USMC that the more relevant case will be for South Korea.  If that is the case, then the dynamics of change going on with regard to USMC and US Naval integration is significant as well as the changes underway which can enable the evolution of how the amphibious task force can deliver more capability in the maritime domain.

During my visit to MAWTS-1 this past month, the CO of MAWTS-1, Col. Gillette laid on how he saw the transition.

He addressed two key questions during the visit: “How is the Marine Corps going to contribute most effectively to the Pacific mission in terms of Sea Control and Sea Denial? And how to best contribute to the defensive and offensive operations affecting the SLOCs?

This is the question I asked him and his response.

Question: Ever since the revival of the Bold Alligator exercises, I have focused on how the amphibious fleet can shift form its greyhound bus role to shaping a task force capable of operating in terms of sea denial and sea control. With the new America-class ships in the fleet, this clearly is the case.

How do you view the revamping of the amphibious fleet in terms of providing new for the USMC and the US Navy to deliver sea control and sea denial?

Col. Gillette:  “The traditional approach for the amphibious force is move force to an area of interest. Now we need to look at the entire maritime combat space, and ask how we can contribute to that combat space, and not simply move force from A to B.

“I think the first leap is to think of the amphibious task force, as you call it, to become a key as pieces on the chess board. As with any piece, they have strengths and weaknesses. Some of the weaknesses are clear, such as the need for a common operational picture, a command and control suite to where the assets that provide data feeds to a carrier strike group are also incorporated onto L-Class shipping. We’re working on those things right now, in order to bring the situational awareness of those types of ships up to speed with the rest of the Naval fleet.”

The F-35s onboard the South Korean light carrier could leverage weapons onboard the destroyers or the projected arsenal ship, but a key question is how best to shape a task force that can defend that ship as the lead element of sea denial or sea control force. The ability o tap into other weapons carriers, and to do third party targeting, which the F-35 is very good at doing is clearly part of it.

Also part of it is to focus on the kind of rotorcraft integrability which the task force carries as well. And here there is a new innovative opportunity for the South Koreans to consider. The Romeos provide a significant ASW and Anti-surface warfare capability, but with the Vipers becoming Link-16 and full-motion video capable next year, the ability to operate Romeo and Viper packages in ship defense is a key capability for the amphibious task force.

In any case, having a marinized helicopter on board which can provide for significant strike capabilities against maritime, land and air capabilities would be a solid addition to the amphibious task force.

As argued in an earlier article:

As the US Navy reworks how it is operating as a distributed maritime force, which is being reshaped around the capability to operate a kill web force, the question of how best to leverage and evolve the amphibious force is a key part of that transition itself.

This is a work in progress, and one in which a determination of various paths to the future are in evolution and will be subject to debate as well.

Part of that evolution are changes in other elements of the amphibious task force which can over time play roles different from how various “legacy” platforms can be reworked to provide for new or expanded capabilities for the US Navy overall.

A case in point is how the Viper attack aircraft can evolve its roles AT SEA with the addition of key elements being generated by the digital interoperability effort, as well as adding a new weapons capability to the Viper, namely, the replacement for the Hellfire missile by the JAGM. 

What this means is that the Viper can be a key part of the defense of the fleet while embarked on a variety of ships operating either independently, or as part of an amphibious task force.

Because the Viper can land on and operate from of a wide range of ships, thus enabling operational and logistical flexibility, and with integration of Link 16 and full motion wave forms as part of digital interoperability improvements, the Viper can become a key member of the kill web force at sea.

Additionally, with digital interoperability enablement, the Viper can be reimagined in terms of how it might work with other members of the at sea task force.

A key example would be how it might work with the Seahawks operating from the L Class ships as well.

As argued in an earlier article:

My interviews with NAWDC have underscored how the Navy is working through the question of how the integratable air wing will change when the MQ-25 joins the fleet, and working ways for the Romeo to work with MQ-25 and Advanced Hawkeye will inform Romeo as part of its fleet defense function.

“The Romeo community is already looking at how having sensors onboard the MQ-25 can expand the reach and range of what the Romeo’s onboard sensors can accomplish for the maritime distributed force.

“It is also the case that as sensor demands currently made on the Romeo can be shifted elsewhere.

“The Romeo can refocus its task priorities and enhance its contributions to broader mission sets such as ASW and to focus on contributing capabilities that other platforms within the strike group are not prioritized to perform.”

Clearly, integrating Romeos which fly onboard the amphibious class ships with the Viper would provide a significant enhancement of the flank defense capabilities for the amphibious task force.

And working a Romeo/Viper package would affect as well the evolution of the Romeos that would fly off of the L class ships as well.

And all of this, frees up other surface elements to support other missions at sea, rather than having to focus on defending the amphibs as greyhound buses.

As the South Koreans build out their maritime strike force, they might think through how to best build out an amphibious task force which best deliver its ability to operate as an offensive-defensive strike capability in the region.

And if the South Koreans choose the Leonardo ASW helicopter, the question of working with the Viper still makes sense.

In an amphibious task force, the point is not to simply to carry the attack helicopter to its launch point for land attack; it is to be available as a strike asset at sea or ashore.

And to do so being able to operate across the fleet as needed as well.

This the Viper can do very well for sure.