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Sea Power: The Rise of the Aircraft Carrier in the Asia-Pacific

With simmering territorial disputes inflaming the Indo-Asia-Pacific, countries in this fastest-growing economic region in the world are making all efforts to buttress their defenses. As each looks nervously at its neighbors, concerns about sea lanes and maritime parity increase, and nations that have never before worried about projecting naval power have suddenly discovered the aircraft carrier. 

These platforms—at times amphibious ships that are essentially helicopter destroyers with the potential to operate fixed-wing aircraft, including drones—have been gaining favor as the South and East China Seas become a hotbed of territorial ambitions. It is an all-out naval buildup that is raising tensions even higher in the region and will likely provoke a costly and dangerous maritime arms race. 

As many as 18 flatdecks have been or are being bought, built, or operated by the six regional powers of China (five), Japan (four), India (four), Australia (two), South Korea (two), and Thailand (one).

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In August 2013, Japan launched its 19,500-ton Izumo, a hybrid resembling a destroyer with a flight deck for attack helicopters. At the same time, India launched its 37,500-ton indigenous aircraft carrier, the Vikrant, making it part of an exclusive group of countries including the UK, the US, Italy, Spain, Russia, and France that can make these floating airfields.

China has already started building its own maiden aircraft carrier, scheduled for completion in 2018, at the Beijing-based China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation. It plans to eventually build four such conventionally powered carriers to join the one it currently has in service—the Liaoning, which was calledthe Varyag when Beijing bought it from Ukraine in 1998 and which joined the Chinese Navy in 2012 after major refurbishment at the Dalian naval shipyard in northeast China. Its hull had been laid at the then Soviet Union’s Nikolayev South Shipyard in 1985.

Australia decommissioned its sole aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne, in 1982, but it is currently building two 27,800-ton Canberra-class amphibious assault ships capable of launching helicopters and jump jets. In 2005, South Korea launched the 18,000-ton ROKS Dokdo,capable of carrying up to 10 helicopters, and plans to build another of the same class. Even Thailand is in the game, operating the smallest operational aircraft carrier in the world, the 11,485-ton HTMS Chakri Naruebet, constructed in Spain and commissioned in 1997.

Of all the players in this maritime free-for-all, China is the most assertive, taking concerted steps toward becoming a dominant military power in the Pacific with a commensurate navy that can project its maritime power. The United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean were taken aback when Beijing announced, in November 2013, that it had created an Air Defense Identification Zone over much of the East China Sea, cautioning all foreign military or civilian aircraft to report their flight paths through the zone to China. Beijing followed this move a few months later with a budget of $145 billion for its military, a 10.1 percent rise over the previous year. In fact, China has often been criticized by Australia, Japan, Taiwan, and other neighbors for keeping much of its funding for developing new technologies out of its official figures, and it is widely assumed that Beijing spent well over $200 billion on its military that year.

Indeed, China’s military spending is the second-largest in the world behind the United States. Although planning to reduce its active force from 572,000 to 440,000—the smallest since before World War II—Washington had been disquieted enough by the developments in the Asia-Pacific to have announced in 2011 what President Obama called a “pivot” strategy in the Asia-Pacific that reallocates, or “rebalances,” 60 percent of US naval assets—up from 50 percent then—to the region by 2020.

The Chinese actions have also prompted regional players like Japan and Australia to boost their military spending. Japan has proposed to increase by 5 percent its military expenditure over five years, to $238 billion, for the period 2014–-19. Australia’s languishing defense budget, which was $25.3 billion (Australian dollars) for 2013–14, has been raised to $31.9 billion for 2015–16, with plans to budget 2 percent of its GDP for defense. It is assumed that Canberra will thus provide defense with $220 billion of funding from 2017–18 to 2022–23.

With the Asia-Pacific having become a cauldron of intense competition, even small countries in the region are investing as much as they can in security. Thailand’s military-run government has budgeted $6.3 billion for 2016 for its defense sector, a 7 percent rise over 2015. The 2016 allocation represents nearly 8 percent of the total state expenditure in the year. The Indonesian government has pledged to increase its defense budget, currently  $7.4 billion, to $15 billion by 2020, taking military spending from the present 0.8 percent to 1.5 percent as a proportion of GDP.

The turn to naval power is contagious. Even in Africa, Angola is said to be acquiring Spain’s recently decommissioned aircraft carrier, the Príncipe de Asturias.

 

There are currently 37 active aircraft carriers in the world in 12 navies. The growing appeal of the aircraft carrier as a viable capital ship of a fleet lies in its capacity as a force multiplier. As the centerpiece of naval operations, these floating airfields are geared for sea control, empowering the navies to project their maritime and air power far beyond their areas of operations. They can also serve as powerful platforms for ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), logistics and close air support, anti-submarine and anti-surface missions, and land assault.

Naval strategists have long debated the relevance of the flatdeck in a theater of long-range strategic airpower, submarine-launched ballistic and cruise missiles, and unmanned aircraft and drones. Yet the utility of the carrier has in fact increased over the years since its advent in November 1910, when Eugene Ely, a 24-year-old civilian pilot, pioneered naval aviation by taking off from a wooden platform built over the bow of an American scout cruiser, the USS Birmingham. Two months later, he also recorded the first landing of an aircraft on a ship’s deck when he touched down on a 130-by-32-foot wooden platform built on the fantail of an armored cruiser, the USS Pennsylvania.

Aircraft carriers today have come a long way from these primitive origins. They vary from converted conventionally powered cruisers to steam and nuclear powered warships that cater to the operational, and budgetary, requirements of their navies. Apart from the type of combat aircraft they can carry, they have their own range of firepower. But they are extremely expensive to build and still vulnerable, even if part of a formidable battlegroup.

For a superpower such as the US, the model for all the developing navies in the world, aircraft carriers have been essential for securing the seas and asserting maritime supremacy, having played a direct or supporting role in almost every major American military operation since World War II. 

In November 2013, the US Navy unveiled the first of its newest generation of aircraft carriers with the launch of the $13 billion USS Gerald Ford. The costliest and most lethal super-carrier ever built, it will be manned by 4,000 sailors and marines, is so stealthy as to be virtually invisible to enemy radar, and will be equipped to launch 220 airstrikes per day. It will enter the fleet in 2016 and is expected to stay commissioned for five decades. Though this Ford-class project has been criticized for delays and cost overruns, there are plans to build three more of this type, at a cost of $43 billion.

For countries such as France, however, such surging costs have deterred extension of aircraft carrier programs. France’s solitary carrier, Charles de Gaulle, is operational for only 65 percent of the year owing to heavy maintenance requirements on its nuclear power system. As a result of a budgetary squeeze, France has also had to exit the joint Anglo-French aircraft carrier program.

The French Court of Auditors has revealed that France had lavished 214 million euros on studies about the efficacy of this change, 112 million of this going to the UK’s Carrier Vessel Future program in 2006–07. A plan to share development costs for two new Queen Elizabeth–class carriers for the Royal Navy, and one for the French Navy, negotiated in 2002, was suspended in 2008 and finally cancelled in 2013 by France’s military programming law. 

 

But if these traditional maritime powers are pulling back, India is moving ahead in its plan to become a major power in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific region. Although financially burdened by the cost, it has both purchased and built aircraft carriers. The Indian Navy has traditionally relied upon two carrier battlegroups, one each for its operational commands of the western and eastern seaboards. Its first carrier, the INS Vikrant (formerly the HMS Hercules), was commissioned in 1961 and taken out of service in 1997. Its second ex-British flatdeck, the INS Viraat (formerly the HMS Hermes), has been sailing with the Indian Navy since 1987. With the arrival in November 2013 of the 44,750-ton INS Vikramaditya (formerly the Admiral Gorshkov, bought from Russia), the Indian Navy again had two carriers. With the Viraat due to be decommissioned in 2018, India has decided to replace it by building its first indigenous aircraft carrier, a 37,500-ton vessel that will carry the same name. Its total cost is expected to exceed $4 billion once it is fully equipped.

The purchase of the Vikramaditya from Russia was a chastening experience for India, whose comptroller and auditor general noted, “The navy is acquiring a second hand refitted aircraft carrier that has half the lifespan and is 60 percent costlier than a new one.” The report mentioned that the ship was in poor condition even at the time of purchase and needed a complete overhaul to make it battle-ready.

New Delhi had signed a $947 million contract with Moscow in January 2004 for revamping the modified Kiev-class missile cruiser with an aircraft complement. This conversion into a full carrier, with the removal of missile launchers and guns from the front deck and construction of a full runway and ski jump, saw timelines slip to such an extent as to warrant repeated refits of the original Vikrant and postponement of its retirement to ensure that India had at least one carrier-based task force. 

Once India was committed to the deal, Russia sought renegotiation to $2.2 billion in March 2010 to pay for additional MiG-29K/KUB naval fighters and Ka-27PS/PL and Ka-31R helicopters. A boiler blowout during sea trials also led the Vikramaditya to miss the revised deadline of December 2012. Undaunted by these problems, however, India is pursuing its plan to build two indigenous Vikrant-class carriers. 

Australia’s efforts to project sea power have gone more smoothly. The two 27,800-ton Canberra-class amphibious assault ships being constructed for the Australian Defense Force (ADF), at a cost of $3.1 billion (Australian dollars), will provide one of the most capable and sophisticated air-land-sea amphibious deployment systems in the world. To be jointly crewed with personnel from the navy, army, and air force, each of them will be able to land a force of more than 2,000 personnel by helicopter and water craft, along with all their weapons, ammunition, vehicles, and stores.

The range of ADF helicopters that will operate from its flight deck will include the MRH90, CH-47 Chinook, Blackhawk, S-70B-2 Seahawk, Romeo Seahawk, and the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter. Onboard defensive systems will be the AN/SLQ-25 Nixie anti-torpedo towed defense system, the Nulka active missile decoy system, four 20-mm automated guns, and six 12.7-mm machine guns.

The HMAS Canberra was commissioned last November; the HMAS Adelaide will join the fleet in 2016. The Spanish company Navantia, the world’s ninth-largest shipbuilder, is responsible for the design and construction, while BAE Systems Australia is the prime contractor. 

 

Australia’s naval construction has drawn a fraction of the attention accorded to Japan’s, which has come about as a result of a wholesale change in the nation’s defense policy away from the postwar Constitution that renounces “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential.” Deeply concerned about the assertive naval posture adopted by China, this spring Tokyo commissioned the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s first-in-class 19,500-ton helicopter carrier, the JS Izumo, the country’s largest military ship since World War II. Built by IHI Marine United, the Izumo-class is seen to be configurable as an offensive aircraft carrier, which is proscribed by the country’s pacifist Constitution.

Izumo and its yet-to-be-named planned sister ship will complement the 13,950-ton Hyuga-class helicopter destroyers, the JS Hyuga and the JS Ise, which entered service in 2009 and 2011. This makes Japan the second Asian power, after India, to have four carriers in operation, launched, or under construction. (China has one, with four more in planning.)

The launch of the Izumo in August 2013 hadroused much controversy in the Asia-Pacific, with Beijing branding it an “aircraft carrier in disguise” that broke Japan’s postwar commitment to non-belligerency. Beijing was well aware that such naval construction would be a factor in its prolonged territorial wrangle with Tokyo over the uninhabited group of islets called Diaoyu by China and Senkaku by Japan that is estimated to have potentially vast gas and oil fields off its shores. 

Tokyo has a similar dispute with Seoul over the island of Liancourt Rocks, which it calls Takeshima and which South Korea knows as Dokdo. Hence, Seoul’s christening of its landing platform helicopter vessel as the ROKS Dokdo irked Japan as much as its own naval development has the Chinese.

The primary mission of the Japanese helicopter destroyers is anti-submarine warfare, for which they can launch Sikorsky SH-60K Seahawk anti-submarine helicopters, Agusta-Westland MCH-101 Merlin airborne mine countermeasures helicopters, and also the Boeing MV-22B Osprey tilt-rotor. But it is the likelihood of unmanned surveillance drones being operated from the decks of the larger Izumo-class that has unsettled Beijing, which views this as a prelude to fixed-wing flights. Such a mission would be in keeping with the efforts of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to step up his country’s defense posture by amending the Constitution or, if that fails, “reinterpret” it to allow the military to conduct combat operations under extreme situations.

But while Japan’s naval construction is contentious because of the military reorientation it represents, China unsettled the Asia-Pacific region more profoundly when it dispatched its carrier, the Liaoning,to the disputed waters of the South China Sea, escorted by two destroyers and two missile cruisers, in November 2013. Beijing maintained it was a “scientific and training mission,” but it was evident to all that the carrier-led task force was steaming through waters China claims sovereignty over and which have drawn it into disputes not only with Japan, but also with the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, and even Malaysia and Brunei.

Construction on the first of China’s indigenous Type 001A aircraft carriers began in 2013, and the hull of the second of the planned four carriers is being laid at a shipyard in Shanghai. The cost of the two is estimated at $9 billion and they are proposed to be outfitted with ski-jump ramps. Beijing is reportedly aiming to establish three carrier battle groups by 2020 to serve all the three major fleets of the Chinese Navy. The Type 001A will be an upgraded version of the Liaoning. Chinese defense officials have yet to determine whether the J-31 stealth fighter will replace the J-15, which made its first successful landing on the Liaoning in 2012.

To cope with the rapid naval buildup of China and Japan, the South Korean ROKS Dokdo and its proposed sister ship are intended to expand the country’s blue-water force. The second Dokdo-class landing platform helicopter ship will have a ski-jump ramp to operate short and vertical takeoff-and-landing aircraft. 

The ROKS Dokdo is the largest vessel in the South Korean Navy. Its flight deck can accommodate five UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters at a time and is armed with the RIM-116 RAM (rolling airframe missile) system, which is an infrared homing surface-to-air missile used to defend against anti-ship cruise missiles. 

As of now, the unpredictable and combative regime of North Korea has no plans to introduce its own carriers into the troubled waters of the Asia-Pacific. But if it ever did, the volatility of the maritime situation in this region, which increases dramatically year by year, would take an even greater leap forward. 

Sarosh Bana is the executive editor of Business India, published out of Mumbai.

 

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