The Evolving Aircraft Carrier Picture in the Indo-Pacific Region
The continuing military build-up in the Indo-Pacific region includes, among other things, aircraft carriers. Several countries in the region have fielded these capital ships with varying degrees of success, and more are poised to join a club that is no longer the domain of the superpowers.
While some operators are undoubtedly seeking a vanity project in acquiring aircraft carriers and there are those who question their utility in a world of ultra-quiet submarines and the proliferation of increasingly capable anti-ship missiles, the ships
are nevertheless a potentially useful sea control and sea denial asset. And in the hands of a capable military with a well thought out operational doctrine, aircraft carriers endow navies with a flexible, mobile avenue for deploying air assets and the ability to project power.
Of the countries in the Indo-Pacific region that have ongoing aircraft carrier programs, China’s is probably the most advanced and attracts the most attention, while remaining the most opaque.
The story started in 1998 when a Macau-based company that was later revealed to be a front for the People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLAN) bought the incomplete hulk of the former Soviet Admiral Kuznetsov class carrier Varyag from Ukraine in 1998, supposedly to be used as a floating casino.
The Varyag was to be the sister ship of the Soviet-era Admiral Kusnetsov – which continues in Russian service today – but was left only partially complete following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Both are Short Take Off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) carriers, with fixed wing aircraft taking off with the assistance of a ski-jump instead of a using catapult like the US Navy’s carriers.
But instead of becoming a casino, Varyag was towed to a shipyard in Dalian in northern China where it was meticulously studied before a refurbishment project started. Now called Liaoning, its Chinese ship class designation is the Type 001 aircraft carrier, and it was commissioned into service in 2011.
Liaoning, which measures 304.5 metres (999ft) at its flight deck and displaces 58,600 tonnes full load, reportedly operates a 40-strong air wing centred around the Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark fighter that is based on the Russian Su-33, of which it can carry roughly two dozen. Due to being a STOBAR design, it is unable to operate heavier or less powerful fixed-wing aircraft.
China is known to have built at least three production batches of J-15s, with approximately 40 aircraft in total in service, and is also believed to be developing an electronic attack variant of the J-16 two-seat multirole jet (based on the Sukhoi Su-30) as well as unmanned aircraft for carrier operations.
Meanwhile, China’s first domestically-built carrier has recently been commissioned into the PLAN. The second carrier, known as the Type 002, was built at the same Dalian shipyard that refurbished the Liaoning, and is broadly similar externally except for a number of design refinements that state media has claimed increased its aircraft capacity to 44.
But China is not resting on its laurels with these two carriers. Already, its third carrier is being built at Jiangnan Changxing Shipyard in Shanghai. Open-source satellite imagery and photos posted online, some taken from airliners overhead, indicate that hull modules are currently being assembled at a new purpose-built facility next to a naval shipyard which has churned out significant numbers of the PLAN’s cruisers, destroyers, and other vessels in recent years.
This third carrier, called the Type 003, is expected to be a larger and more complex ship than the Type 001 and 002, with displacement fully loaded believed to be in the region of 80,000 tonnes. The key difference with the earlier ships, however, is that it is widely expected to feature catapults, allowing for the operation of larger aircraft while speeding up the launch sequence.
China has built two catapult launch systems – one believed to be a traditional steam catapult and the other an electromagnetic launch system similar to the US Navy’s new EMALS – at its carrier aviation training base near Huludao which is, appropriately, in Liaoning province.
China is also developing a new carrier-borne airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft remarkably similar to the US Navy’s Northrop-Grumman E-2 Hawkeye. The twin-engine turboprop design, which reportedly carries the designation Xi’an KJ-600, recently made its maiden flight from the company’s production facility at Xi’an-Yanliang.
The KJ-600 will provide the PLAN a much more effective AEW system than the current Changhe Z-18J helicopters which are equipped with an active-electronically scanned array radar in a deployable belly housing on the 001 and 002 carriers.
In contrast to China, India has been a long-time operator of aircraft carriers.
The South Asian nation acquired the incomplete hull of the HMS Hercules, a Majestic class light carrier in 1957, and commissioned it as the INS Vikrant in March 1961 following a refurbishment. In 1987 India acquired the retired Royal Navy carrier HMS Hermes of Falklands War fame, and renamed the ship the INS Viraat. These vessels were decommissioned in 1997 and 2017, respectively.
Plans for a new class of indigenous aircraft carriers were drawn up by India as far back as 1989, with proposals calling for a pair of 28,000-tonne air defence ships to firstly replace Vikrant and then Viraat on retirement. Economic problems in India put the project on ice in 1991, but these were revived in 1999 and, by 2003 the projected displacement for the ships were scaled up to 37,500 tonnes.
The Indian Navy’s Sea Harrier fleet was also on the verge of retirement and the decision was made to adopt the Russian Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29K Fulcrum-D as its main combat aircraft. By 2006 the designation for the ships was changed to the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC), and the projected displacement had gone up to 40,000 tonnes and the length to 262m (850ft).
To fill the carrier gap caused by delays to the program and the retirement of the older vessels, India signed a deal with Russia in 2004 to acquire the Kiev class hybrid carrier-cruiser Admiral Gorshkov (formerly Baku). The deal followed protracted negotiations and, while the ship itself was free, India agreed to pay the equivalent of A$1.12 million for the upgrade and refit of the ship, as well as an additional A$1.39 million for the aircraft and weapons systems.
The aircraft acquired included a dozen single-seat Mikoyan MiG-29Ks and four dual-seat MiG-29KUBs (with options for 14 more), and six Kamov Ka-31 Helix helicopters, while the contract also covered training facilities and programs, pilots and technical staff, simulators, spare parts, and the establishment of a local sustainment program.
The upgrade to the ship itself, which would be called the INS Vikramaditya, involved the conversion from the carrier-cruiser configuration to that of a pure carrier utilising STOBAR for aircraft operations, and was due to be completed by 2008. Aircraft capacity is a maximum of 36 aircraft comprising 26 fighters and 10 helicopters.
Problems with the program happened soon after, however, with Russia demanding to increase the price citing the additional work required on the hull due to its poor condition, and then using the cost of a new carrier as a baseline for setting the new price. Following high-level diplomatic negotiations, both parties agreed on a new price in early 2009, and the ship was commissioned in November 2013, more than five years late.
Meanwhile, the IAC program is also facing delays, with the first ship – to be named Vikrant in service – already having its completion and commissioning dates slip several times. The original plan called for delivery to the Indian Navy in 2010 and commissioning in 2016, but a series of procurement and construction issues meant that a 2018 timeline showed that sea trials would only have begun in March 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen that milestone slip further and, despite the Indian Navy expecting the carrier to be commissioned in 2021, it is now not expected to be fully operational until at least 2023.
The Vikrant will have facilities for up to 40 aircraft and aircraft operations will again be by STOBAR. But following revelations that India’s planned carrier-borne version of the HAL Tejas LCA is too heavy, India is now looking at other options including the Dassault Rafale M or Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, with Boeing already having conducted some ski-jump trials to assess the Super Hornet’s suitability in STOBAR operations.
Meanwhile, Japan is almost tiptoeing its way into joining the regional aircraft carrier club.
Given the domestic and regional discomfort about its actions during World War II, this is perhaps understandable. But as regional geopolitics have shifted in recent years, Japan’s recent decision to operate its own aircraft carriers has become a lot more palatable.
Its first ‘through deck’ ships since the end of the war is the Hyuga class. Classified as Helicopter-Destroyers (DDH) in English nomenclature, the two ships of the class, JSs Hyuga and Ise are known as Escort Ships in Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) service.
Ise and Hyuga measure 197 metres (646ft) long and displace 19,000 tonnes fully loaded, and they were commissioned into service in 2009 and 2011, respectively. While they have a through deck with four landing spots for helicopter operations, the location of a Phalanx close-in weapon system (CIWS) and the wedge shape of the forward flight deck means that fixed-wing aircraft will be unable to operate from these ships.
The DDHs have a capacity of 18 helicopters and are used as helicopter carriers for use in heliborne amphibious operations, anti-submarine, mine hunting, and/or humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) operations. During Talisman Sabre 2019 off the Queensland coast, the Ise carried a pair of SH-60 Seahawk and CH-47JA Chinook helicopters, performing most of the aforementioned roles.
The Hyuga class was followed by the larger Izumo class, comprising JSs Izumo and Kaga. These 27,000-tonne, 248 metre (814ft) long DDHs were commissioned to perform a similar role to the smaller Hyuga class, and can carry a maximum of 28 aircraft (initially helicopters) operating from five landing spots.
Izumo and Kaga were commissioned in 2015 and 2017, respectively. Both classes of DDHs are lightly armed with short-range anti-aircraft weapons such as the Raytheon/Diehl BGT RIM-116 SeaRAM missile and Phalanx CIWS. But, unlike the US Navy’s Wasp class, they do not have a well-dock for seaborn amphibious assaults.
At around the same time the Kaga was commissioned, rumours started gathering pace that the conservative government of then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was planning to convert the Izumo into an aircraft carrier capable of operating the Short Take-off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) Lockheed-Martin F-35B Lightning II. This was confirmed in late 2018 when Japan’s then defence minister Takeshi Iwaya confirmed plans to acquire 42 F-35Bs and to convert both of the Izumo class vessels.
Japan has requested the equivalent of A$305.9 million in the 2021 defence budget for the Izumo’s conversion, which has already started. According to the ministry’s budget documents, this will at the very least require part of its flight deck to be re-skinned to protect it from the heat of the F-35B’s exhaust, and the re-shaping of the forward flight deck into a rectangular shape for fixed-wing aircraft operations. Like the US’s amphibious carriers, no ski-jump will be fitted.
Japan is currently potentially the biggest operator of F-35s outside the US, with plans to eventually operate 105 conventional takeoff and landing F-35As in addition to the 42 F-35Bs.
Unlike Japan, South Korea had no need to tiptoe its way into acquiring an aircraft carrier capability. The country – which is still technically at war with North Korea owing to the absence of a formal peace deal following the 1953 armistice that silenced the guns on the divided peninsula – has commissioned the first of three planned Dokdo class Landing Platform Helicopter (LPH) vessels.
The lead ship of the class – ROKS Dokdo – was launched in 2005 and commissioned into the Republic of Korea Navy (RoKN) in 2007. In terms of external layout, it is broadly similar to the Hyuga class, measuring 199 metres (653ft) in length and displacing 19,500 tonnes fully loaded. The flight deck itself has five helicopter spots, although a distinct difference from its Japanese counterpart is the presence of a well dock that is capable of handling two air-cushioned landing craft for amphibious operations.
Since putting the Dokdo into service, South Korea has focused on other naval priorities, namely transforming the RoKN into a true blue-water force with fleet of Aegis-equipped destroyers, frigates, and attack submarines.
ROKS Marado, the second LPH was only launched in May 2018, and was scheduled to be commissioned in 2020, although it is not clear if that has been delayed. Compared to the Dokdo, the Marado incorporates a number of significant changes, including new radars and a new combat management system.
Meanwhile, South Korea is pushing ahead with a new class of ships capable of operating fixed-wing aircraft. Designated the LPX-II (Landing Platform, Experimental II), the new class, which according to artwork released by South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) suggesting a direct lineage from the Dokdo class, is expected to displace between 30-35,000 tonnes at full load.
Hyundai Heavy Industries won a contract for the design of the LPX-II in 2019, and reports suggest that the South Korean military leadership wants to speed up the program and is seeking to include its basic design to be included in the MND’s Defense mid-term plan for 2021 to 2025.
The RoKN expects the basic design phase will last approximately three years, with a further seven years for detailed design and construction. That means the first carrier could be delivered as early as 2031. Like Japan, South Korea is also an existing operator of the F-35A and a second batch of 40 F-35s that the country is planning to acquire is expected to be an even split of A and B models.
THAILAND & SINGAPORE
In addition to the above countries, other regional nations have also flirted with operating vessels with expanded aviation facilities.
Perhaps somewhat incongruously, the first regional country to do so was Thailand which ordered an aircraft carrier based on the Spanish Príncipe de Asturias design in 1992. Launched in 1996 and commissioned into Royal Thai Navy service a year later as the HTMS Chakri Naruebet, the ship was the smallest functioning aircraft carrier at the time, displacing just shy of 11,500 tonnes at full load.
The Thai carrier originally planned to operate with a fleet of BAE AV-8S Matador (the Spanish designation for the Harrier) acquired from Spain, with the carrier built with a ski-jump for STOBAR operations. But the financial crisis which battered Thailand just as the carrier entered service meant it was unable to afford to operate the ship. It is only recently that the ship has started to be utilised further after effectively being a ‘harbour queen’ for most of its service life.
Further south, Singapore – with its strategically located port – is planning to introduce what it calls a ‘Joint Multi-Mission Ship’ into the Republic of Singapore Navy around the 2030 timeframe. Details are scarce, but official statements and artwork have suggested that it is seeking a through-deck design that can operate a larger number of helicopters than the two medium-sized or single heavy-lift helicopters operational on its four 141-metre long Endurance class Landing Platform Docks (LPD).
Other requirements for the new design include better command and control, and air traffic control capabilities. However, it is not likely that Singapore is looking to operate fixed-wing aircraft from the ships, despite having already selected the F-35B as the next fighter for its air force.
This article was written by Mike Yeo and published by ADBR on April 7, 2021.
The image of the projected South Korean aircraft carrier is from the Republic of Korean Navy’s Facebook page.