Dr. Paal Sigurd Hilde.
With its February 2021 decision to start work on building a light aircraft carrier, the CV-X, South Korea is set to join an exclusive club of countries that operate such vessels. The decision has proved controversial. Opponents argue that given the threats the country faces, a costly carrier is not what South Korea needs. Proponents counter that a light aircraft carrier is not only useful for countering the threat from North Korea, but also important for the ability of South Korea to protect its worldwide maritime interests.
Leaving specific military needs aside, the South Korean decision is not exceptional when seen from a European perspective. Of the five most populous countries in Europe, only Germany does not have an aircraft carrier in its navy. France, Italy, Russia and the United Kingdom all operate one or two aircraft carriers. In addition, the sixth-largest country, Spain, operates a vessel that is not classified as a carrier, but in essence fills this function. Looking closer at why the democratic European countries (i.e. leaving Russia aside) operate aircraft carriers, at least two are equally or even more applicable to South Korea: maritime interests and industrial policy.
While Korean maritime history and traditions do not match those of the four European countries, South Korea does have significant and comparable maritime interests. Unlike France, Spain and the United Kingdom, the South Korean interests do not include distant overseas territories. Like Italy and Spain, however, Korea is a peninsula, evincing the significance of maritime borders. Indeed, the maritime security concerns South Korea faces in its adjacent waters are arguably much greater than those faced by the European countries. Apart from the threat from North Korea, this includes the strained relationship with Japan and the potential threat from its maritime next-door great power neighbor, the increasingly assertive China.
Beyond these local concerns, South Korea’s main maritime interest is clearly its position as one of the world’s largest maritime economies. According to the oft-quoted maritime industry data provider VesselsValue, South Korea was the world’s sixth-largest “shipowning nation” in 2020. By comparison, only one of the four European aircraft carrier operators is listed among the top 10, namely the United Kingdom, ranked ninth. Similarly, an assessment of the “world’s largest maritime nations” in 2018, made by the renowned international classification company DNV GL and Menon Economics, placed South Korea fourth (a position shared with Germany and Norway). All four European aircraft carrier operators ranked below South Korea: the UK eighth, France and Italy both 10th and Spain 21st.
From a European perspective, the South Korean decision to build a light aircraft carrier befits its maritime interests. The European carrier operators all emphasize maritime interest as a key reason they need the carrier capability. This includes a dedication to secure global sea lines of communication. While South Korea is a somewhat smaller economy than the United Kingdom, France and Italy, but bigger than Spain, the significance of maritime interests for the South Korean economy is greater. Notably, this is the case for shipping -- and thus an interest in keeping the world’s oceans safe and accessible. In other words, seen from this perspective, the South Korean decision does not stand out when compared to European countries.
A second key reason for the European decisions to keep carriers in their navies is industrial policy. All European aircraft carriers were built locally by a national shipyard. From an efficiency and cost perspective, this makes little sense, as the shipyards often build only one such vessel. Clearly, the European carrier operators use their defense budgets to support the national shipbuilding industry. This is by no means a uniquely European or naval phenomenon. The motivation is likely not only to secure employment, but also to maintain industrial expertise.
Over the course of the last four decades, South Korea has become one of the largest -- or the largest by some counts -- shipbuilding countries in the world. It has vastly outgrown the total European shipbuilding industry. The extensive Korean expertise and capacity has also enabled an ambitious construction program for the Korean Navy, featuring advanced, domestically designed and built vessels such as the KSS-III submarine. Having already built two smaller Dokdo-class helicopter carriers, the CV-X is a natural step up in ambitions.
Like European shipbuilders, South Korean firms are also eyeing the export market. While the export potential for the CV-X-type vessels might not be great, the contract from the Korean Navy will establish the necessary expertise to build these types of ships. The Spanish experience suggests that orders may follow. The successful Juan Carlos I class aircraft-carrying vessels so far have landed two orders: two ships delivered to Australia and one (perhaps two) being license-built in Turkey.
Clearly, the maritime industrial argument is even stronger in the South Korean case than for the European countries. The South Korean decision to build a light aircraft carrier does not stand out in the crowd when compared to the European, industrial perspective.
Nothing out of ordinary
Democratic European countries comparable to South Korea in terms of population, economy and maritime interests operate aircraft carriers. The two bigger countries, France and the United Kingdom, have bigger carriers; the smaller, Italy and Spain, have smaller, light carriers. Two key reasons the European countries have chosen to retain such big and expensive vessels, instead of acquiring a larger number of smaller vessels, is the utility of aircraft carriers in protecting their maritime interests and the desire to keep the expertise to build such vessels in their shipbuilding industry. Both reasons are equally or even more valid for South Korea. All in all, it is safe to conclude that had South Korea been a peninsula somewhere in Europe, its decision to build the CV-X would not stand out in the crowd.
By Paal Sigurd Hilde
Paal Sigurd Hilde is an associate professor and head of section for Norwegian security policy at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies.