Hmm, South Korea’s First Aircraft Carrier Looks Awfully Familiar

Kyle Mizokami
·4-min read

From Popular Mechanics

South Korea’s Navy has shared images of the country’s first aircraft carrier. The unnamed ship, which will carry the vertical takeoff and landing version of the F-35, will take to the seas sometime in the 2030s.

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The ship bears a striking resemblance to the Royal Navy’s new carriers, built half a world away, but there are some major distinctions between the two ships.

The Republic of Korea Navy provided the image above, along with an explanation of some of the ship’s details, to the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper. The carrier will be the largest warship ever built by South Korea’s shipyards. The current record holders, the amphibious assault ships Dokdo and Marado, have full-length flight decks, but weren't built with operating fixed wing aircraft like the F-35 in mind.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Chad Swysgood/DVIDS
Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Chad Swysgood/DVIDS

The carrier’s dimensions and overall displacement in tons aren't stated, but it looks to be about the same length as the U.S. Navy’s America-class amphibious assault ships, which are approximately 844 feet long and displace 45,000 tons. The carrier is depicted with at least 10 F-35B fighters and a single helicopter. It also features two islands overlooking the flight deck and two elevators leading to a large hangar below, both on the right side.

One of the most distinctive features of the ship is the presence of two islands instead of the usual one overlooking the flight deck. This is a setup pioneered by the Royal Navy’s two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers. As the U.K Defense Journal describes it:

“The forward island is for ship control functions and the aft (FLYCO) island is for flying control. The reason for two islands is, simply put, due to the gas turbine exhausts. The design would have either had two small islands or one large, long island. The two smaller islands were chosen.”

Two smaller islands instead of a single large one frees up space on the flight deck. (Incidentally, American carriers can get away with one small island because they're nuclear-powered, and their reactors don't generate exhaust.) The JoongAng Ilbo also says the two islands will both be independently capable of overseeing flight operations, in case one is disabled by enemy fire.

Photo credit: Christopher Furlong - Getty Images
Photo credit: Christopher Furlong - Getty Images

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The unnamed Korean carrier is distinguished from its U.K. cousin by two other features. For starters, the flight deck doesn't overhang the bow, especially on the port side, as seen in Queen Elizabeth. In that sense, it’s more like the America class.

The ship is also missing a ski ramp. The Queen Elizabeth class, Russia’s carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, China’s carriers Liaoning and Shandong, and the Indian Navy carrier Vikramaditya all feature ski ramps designed to help loft airplanes burdened with fuel and munitions into the air.

The Nimitz- and Ford-class carriers, Wasp- and America-class amphibious assault ships, and Japanese Izumo-class carriers don't—or won't—use ski ramps. The former use steam or electromagnetic catapults, while the latter rely on a short rolling takeoff or vertical takeoff to get planes into the air.

Photo credit: Andrei Luzik - Getty Images
Photo credit: Andrei Luzik - Getty Images

The new Korean ship also includes a powerful, advanced electronically scanned array radar “capable of tracking ballistic missiles,” as well as a point defense missile system designed to shoot down incoming anti-ship cruise missiles.

Maximizing hull space for aviation and using a relatively small hull will require trade-offs. South Korea's carrier will rely on its escorting frigates and destroyers to defend it from most air, surface, and subsurface threats. The carrier will sail without a long-range radar-equipped airplane like the E-2D Hawkeye, and will instead use the radars of her escorting destroyers.

Photo credit: Smith Collection/Gado - Getty Images
Photo credit: Smith Collection/Gado - Getty Images

The air wing will consist of approximately 10 to 12 F-35Bs. Korea has 20 F-35Bs on order, so the South Korean Navy will have enough aircraft to equip the carrier, while also having enough planes on hand to conduct land-based training and spares to cover losses.

This compares to 44 F/A-18C, F/A-18E/F, or F-35 strike fighters on Nimitz- and Ford-class carriers, up to 20 F-35Bs on U.S. Navy amphibious assault ships, and 18 to 30 J-15 fighter jets on China’s carriers.

The smaller ship size, and air wing, is leading South Korea to call it a light carrier. The new ship should enter service in 2033.

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