Aircraft carriers still key to security in Indo-Pacific

Aircraft carriers still key to security in Indo-Pacific

Tom Abke

Aircraft carriers are increasingly popular in the Indo-Pacific. The major countries active in the region have either deployed them, are building new ones or have plans to refit existing assault vessels as carriers. They all strive to use mobile firepower as a deterrent and as a military option in the event of combat.

To gain insight into these trends, FORUM spoke with a pair of carrier experts.

Dr. James R. Holmes, J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, offered his personal views (rather than those of the U.S. Navy or War College).

“There’s a lot of talk in the United States about moving from nuclear-powered aircraft carriers to something smaller, mainly because of the expense of fixed-wing aircraft carriers [CVNs],” Holmes said. “Look around the Indo-Pacific and everyone else is upsizing, not downsizing.”

The U.S. recently repurposed its 40,000-ton amphibious assault ship, the USS Wasp, a landing helicopter dock (LHD), pictured, to shoulder eight to 12 short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing F-35B fighter jets, Holmes said. It is now the forward-deployed amphibious assault ship for the 7th Fleet at Sasebo, Japan.

The U.S. is evaluating repurposing other LHDs. They would complement the CVN strike carriers, such as the 100,000-ton USS Ronald Reagan currently deployed to the region, he said.

“Japan seems ambivalent about repurposing its ‘helicopter destroyers’ for fixed-wing aircraft, while South Korea is gung-ho about doing it,” Holmes said. He was referring to Japan’s Izumo-class and South Korea’s Dokdo-class assault vessels, both under 30,000 tons with carrier capabilities, currently being considered to carry F-35Bs.

“Such vessels would provide Tokyo and Seoul with mobile firepower, helping them project power far from home,” he said. “Both countries could pose threats from the air off the east and west coasts of the Korean Peninsula, for example, while Japan could entertain new options in the Senkakus and elsewhere in the southwestern islands. Deterrence would also benefit. If part of the nation’s air power is on the go, it will be hard for a North Korea or China to target it at the outset of a conflict.” The uninhabited Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea are claimed by both Japan and China.

Meanwhile, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has its own ambitious carrier program, Dr. Euan Graham of the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia, explained to FORUM.

“The PLA is fairly limited in its carrier capability at the moment, but it’s thinking big,” Graham said. “The carrier that it has, the Liaoning, I think of that as a training carrier. It’s not there to provide any real strike capability. But its third carrier is already under construction. Money is not China’s problem.”

Once China masters “the very complex nature of carrier operations,” Graham foresees China using its next-generation carriers to intimidate smaller countries in the region, particularly when U.S. forces aren’t present in the area.

The longer-term future of carriers in the region remains in question, both experts agreed.  Speaking hypothetically, Holmes suggested that only actual combat could determine what this would be. Graham, however, predicted that evolving aviation technology may be a deciding factor.

“Unmanned aviation is obviously only going to grow,” he said, adding speculation that a bat-winged drone like that of the currently experimental U.S.-made X-47 could play a significant role.

“I think it’s only a matter of time until something of that nature is capable of carrying missiles and dropping ordinances,” he said, adding that such a craft could be carried and launched by LHDs such as Japan’s Izumo, South Korea’s Dokdo or Australia’s Canberra.

Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.