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South Korea Has a New ‘Mini’ Aircraft Carrier (That Will Soon Have F-35s?)

210408-M-UY835-1014 SOUTH CHINA SEA (April 8, 2021) A U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 164 (Reinforced), 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, takes off from the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD 8). The Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group and embarked 15th MEU are operating in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations to enhance interoperability with allies and partners and serve as a ready response force to defend peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Patrick Crosley)

With an eye on China as well as Japan, the Republic of Korean Navy’s power projection capabilities are set to increase in a big way.

The Dokdo-class, South Korea’s own indigenously designed and built class of amphibious assault ships, represents the largest class of ship in the Republic of Korea Navy and are a potent power projection tool. Though significantly smaller than purpose-built aircraft carriers, South Korea’s two Dokdos are nonetheless able to accommodate both helicopters and high-speed air-cushioned landing vehicles for so-called over the horizon amphibious assault.

The two Dokdo-class ships, the original ROKS Dokdo and the ROKS Marado, both feature a polyurethane-treated flight deck — a material very similar to that used in skateboard wheels — to absorb the impact force generated by landing aircraft. This design pairs well with the F-35B, the short takeoff and vertical landing variant of the potent F-35 fighter that Seoul has on order.

Compared to its older sister ship, the ROKS Marado incorporates several lessons learned from the Dokdo’s construction. While the Dokdo had sufficient deck space to accommodate just a single V-22 Osprey, the Marado’s modified flight deck can accommodate two of the long-range tiltrotor aircraft. Additionally, the Marado’s flight deck has been redesigned to better handle the stresses of operating two of the large aircraft.

The Marado’s weapons suite is also somewhat different and includes a smaller-diameter Close-in weapon system as well as indigenously designed launchers for South Korea’s ship based surface-to-air missile.

Both the Dodo and the Marado are crucial steps for the Republic of Korea Navy to transform itself from a littoral navy with a laser-like focus on North Korea into a blue-water navy capable of power projection in favor of Seoul’s interests far away from South Korean territorial waters.

Though China immediately comes to mind when thinking about potential adversaries in South Korea’s near abroad, Seoul’s relationship with Japan remains testy. In addition to unresolved issues relating to Japan’s conduct during the Second World War, the two countries are locked in a territorial dispute over the Liancourt Rocks, a small group of mostly uninhabited islands roughly equidistant from the South Korean and Japanese coasts.

Though administered by the Korean Coast Guard, Japan disputes South Korea’s claim to the islands — which in Korean are known as the Dokdo Islands.

So whether Seoul has an eye on North Korea, countering Beijing’s increasingly provocative presence in the South China Sea, or backing up its territorial claims with more muscle — the two Dokdo-class ships provide the Republic of Korean Navy with a powerful offensive capability.

Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

Written By

Caleb Larson, a defense journalist based in Europe and holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics and culture.

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