South Korea’s Navy saw its yearslong dream come true on Feb. 22, when the Ministry of National Defense approved a plan to build the nation’s first light aircraft carrier by 2033. But experts say that the Navy has yet to convince taxpayers and military watchers about the 2 trillion-won ($1.8 billion) project.
The National Assembly will approve the budget for the vessel, which was first discussed in 1996, after reviewing an independent cost-benefit analysis.
“A light aircraft carrier is the only asset that can combine our military capabilities at sea. Its very presence deters aggression from North Korea,” Navy chief Boo Suk-jong said at a seminar on Feb. 4, adding it also advances the national status.
But, Jung Ho-sub, a retired Navy chief who served from 2015 to 2016, was wary of Boo’s vaguely worded support for the project.
“An aircraft carrier does not resolve security concerns all so easily. It will be placed under constant scrutiny of (Korea’s) neighbors,” Jung said, referring to Russia, China and Japan.
Critics add that the existing Air Force fighter jets cover North Korea better than new carrier-based jets could, with more lethal weapons on board, and that more attack submarines would give Seoul more of an edge over Pyongyang in the East Sea.
“If we make one (an aircraft carrier), it will elevate our status, yes. But is this urgent?” said Rep. Shin Won-sik of the main opposition People Power Party.
Shin, who served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said maintenance costs will drain the government finances in years to come, since an aircraft carrier -- a seagoing air base that needs support -- would require a naval fleet to project optimal air power.
Experts supporting the project said the military should be more forthcoming about why it is pursuing the weapon in more coherent persuasion.
“Building a homegrown aircraft carrier is essentially sending out a message to China and Japan: We’re gearing up. It’s not something they want to hear, and I get why the military is a bit cautious,” said Yang Uk, an adjunct professor of national defense strategy at Hannam University.
But the military should have the audacity to articulate that or help channel the concerns, at least to those dissenting voices saying the weapon would provide little value, he said, noting Seoul would have to think beyond the North Korean threat eventually.
“And we could just as well spend money on a cause we think could serve us well in the long run,” Yang said, adding the project represents an opportunity to expand South Korea’s expertise on naval weapons and security ties to the outside world.
Yang pointed to regular joint drills South Korea and the US hold against North Korea, and to global maritime warfare exercises where countries come together to enhance alliance on security.
“We learn how to manage not just one but a class of weapons involving the carrier. We could improve ties with the US and cultivate new ones with others sharing similar security concerns,” he said.
Bruce Bechtol, a retired US Marine who worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency, said, “It takes many years to build a project of this kind. Thus, getting started now is quite important.” He noted that China and Japan each either have a carrier or plan to make one.
Meanwhile, other experts said South Korea would have advanced destroyers, attack submarines and frigates around the time the first homegrown aircraft carrier is rolled out, so the carrier would not be left without a fleet to take on missions as opponents claim so.
“The upside is clear but it doesn’t come across as salient from the Navy,” Yang said. The Navy is in uncharted territory but could do better to assure the skeptics, he added.
By Choi Si-young (email@example.com