Memo to Seoul on the great Pacific Ocean aircraft carrier race

Special to

By Donald Kirk,

Could aircraft carriers be the next big thing for Korea’s enormous shipbuilding industry, the world’s best and biggest?

With orders down during the global economic slowdown, it would seem logical that Hyundai Heavy Industries and some of its rivals bring up the topic of aircraft carrier production with their friends in power in Seoul.

The Samsung Heavy Industries shipbuilding yard in Geoje, South Korea.  /Reuters
The Samsung Heavy Industries shipbuilding yard in Geoje, South Korea. /Reuters

They’ve already shown their prowess at building lesser navy ships, including Aegis-class destroyers and submarines and corvettes such as the Cheonan, sunk more than three years ago by a North Korean torpedo fired by a mini-submarine.

Why not consider producing the real goliath of the sea — maybe not on the scale of the U.S. giants, the George Washington and Ronald Reagan, but a vessel capable of launching dozens of warplanes?

That question comes to mind in the wake of the launches of two aircraft carriers by nations on either side of China — that is, India, to the south and southwest and Japan to the east.

The Indian aircraft carrier won’t be able to do anything for real for another five years while the Japanese carrier is supposedly just a large destroyer with an outsized flight deck. The Japanese say that’s big enough for only 14 helicopters, but it sure looks as if it’s intended for fixed-wing aircraft as well.

No doubt about it, the Japanese carrier, or destroyer, appears as a response to China’s lone aircraft carrier, a discard from the Ukraine that was rebuilt in China but isn’t carrying planes except for testing and training.

Korean manufacturers, moreover, could argue that Korea needs its own carrier not only for guarding against North Korea but also for defense of the Dokdo islets, which Japan persists in claiming as its own.

Discreetly, the Japanese aren’t boasting much about the 19,500-ton Izumo, which should be ready for action in two years, but Japan’s success in producing it may diminish the Chinese challenge to Japanese control over the disputed Senkaku islands. No one doubts that Japanese shipyards could turn out still more in the Izumo class — and go up to full-fledged aircraft carriers.

At the same time, India is trumpeting the launch of the 37,500-ton Vikrant as its first “indigenous” aircraft carrier, engineered and produced in India at a shipyard on the southeastern coast, but this vessel is far from functional. Yes, it’s safely in the water, but basically it’s a shell awaiting a flight deck, bridge and much else.

As for China’s carrier the Liaoning, the new name of a Soviet Navy ship that was launched 25 years ago, it’s been rebuilt and sailing around the Yellow Sea for more than a year in the role of a training vessel.

Chinese shipyards are expected to try to produce home-made models in the next few years, advancing on much the same technology.

At 55,000 tons, the Liaoning’s got a flight deck 305 meters long — not all that much longer than the 263-meter flight deck of the Vikrant or the 248- flight deck of the Izumo — and can carry maybe 50 fighter planes compared with 36 on the Vikrant. (The Japanese don’t say how many planes the Izumo might carry since, remember, it’s not supposed to carry any planes at all.)

China is obviously upset about the competition, especially from Japan, always seen as looking for an excuse to return to the days of Japanese imperialism that ended 68 years ago this week with the Japanese surrender on Aug. 15, 1945.

The Japanese have built hundreds of enormous merchant ships but no military vessel nearly as large as the Izumo since the “Pacific War.”

For India, not known as a ship-building nation despite its long coastlines, the launch of the Vikrant is a matter of intense pride. “A proud moment for Indian Navy,” headlined the Hindu, a major national newspaper. “In Elite Club,” said a subhead.

“Indigenous” and “indigenization” are words that come up regularly in reports of the launch. It’s as though Indians are overjoyed not to have to describe the ship as “Indianized” via “Indianization” — terms for converting three other carriers, two originally in Britain’s Royal Navy, the third, having once been a mainstay of the Soviet navy, arriving this year from Russia.

“India will join a select club of four nations — the U.S., the U.K., France and Russia — that have the capability to build and operate warships of this size,” said the Indian Express, another national newspaper, despite “a long road ahead” before the ship is completed and ready for duty.

With all their proven capabilities for building huge, sophisticated vessels for just about any other purpose, should South Korea not join the club? No need then for the George Washington to make periodic excursions into the Yellow Sea with the Voice of America on board for propaganda sound effects.

A South Korean carrier would be a quantum leap in military self-sufficiency.