In the Pacific Rim - more than China is getting totally hot for air craft carriers.
Usually classified as amphibious ships or helicopter destroyers/cruisers, they had mostly escaped serious scrutiny in the mainstream consciousness. Until the past few weeks, that is, when a series of events thrust these vessels into global news headlines.
Australia is currently building two 27,800-ton Canberra-class Landing Helicopter Docks (LHDs) under Joint Project 2048. The ships, HMAS Canberra (LHD-02) and HMAS Adelaide (LHD-01) are based on the Spanish Navy’s Juan Carlos I built by Spain’s Navantia. The design was the winner of a competition with France’s Direction des Constructions Navales (DCN), which offered a larger version of the Mistral class design.
The HMAS Canberra is currently being completed at BAE Systems – Maritime in Melburne after having been initially laid down in Spain and transported by sea to Australia. She will enter service with the Royal Australian Navy in 2014 while her sister ship will join her two years later. The LHDs will replace the HMAS Tobruk and the Kanimbla-class ships in mainly conducting amphibious operations with a secondary HADR brief.
The Canberra class vessels boast a length of 230.82 metres (757.3 ft), with a maximum beam of 32 metres (105 ft) and maximum draught of 7.08 metres (23.2 ft). Maximum speed is 20 knots, and the LHDs will sport four Rafael Typhoon 25 mm remote weapons systems, six 12.7 mm machine guns, an AN/SLQ-25 Nixie towed torpedo decoy, and a Nulka missile decoy.
The LHDs will be able to carry 1,046 soldiers and their equipment. Two vehicle decks (one for light vehicles, the other for heavy vehicles and tanks) can accommodate up to 110 vehicles. Each ship has a well deck for landing craft, while the flight deck has landing spots for six NH90-class helicopters or four CH-47 Chinook-class helicopters to operate simultaneously. The ships are equipped with a 13° ski jump retained from the Juan Carlos I design, although Australia has no plans to operate fixed-wing aircraft from these ships. The standard air group will typically be a mix of MRH-90 transport helicopters and S-70B Seahawk anti-submarine helicopters. The hangar can accommodate up to 18 helicopters, but eight will be the standard complement.
Of all the nations deploying flattops in the Asia-Pacific, undoubtedly the most controversial has been Japan’s. Suspicion runs deep in the region about Japan’s true intentions despite its pacifist postwar constitution specifically banning the nation from deploying offensive weapons, fuelled by lingering anger over what is perceived as Japan’s failure to fully atone for its actions in World War II. With this in mind, the outcry that accompanied each launch of a Japanese flattop, classified as Helicopter-Destroyers (DDH) by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), is always predictable. But that hasn’t stopped Japan from being the Asia-Pacific nation with the most flight deck-equipped ships, with four in service or being built.
The JMSDF commissioned the Hyuga and her sister Ise in 2009 and 2011 respectively. Displacing 13,950 tons standard and 19,000 tons fully loaded, the ships are equipped with enhanced command-and-control capabilities, allowing them to serve as flagships for the JMSDF. The ships' primary mission is to function as an anti-submarine warfare carrier, and four landing spots for helicopters are provided for on the flight deck, although a maximum of 11 can be carried. The irregular plan form of the flight deck and the location of the forward Phalanx Close-In Weapon System would preclude the Hyuga-class from operating fixed-wing aircraft without a substantial flight deck redesign. The normal helicopter complement is three Sikorsky SH-60K Seahawk antisubmarine helicopters and a single Agusta-Westland MCH-101 Merlin airborne mine countermeasures helicopter; however this can vary depending on the mission.
The JS Hyuga was heavily involved in the HADR effort after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011. In June 2013, she became the first JMSDF ship to operate the Boeing MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft during the Dawn Blitz exercise with the U.S. Marine Corps off the coast of California.
On August 6, 2013, Japan followed up with the launch of the JS Izumo, the lead ship of an even larger DDH design. Displacing 19,500 ton empty and 27,000 tons fully loaded, the Izumo and her as-yet unnamed sister will be the largest ships in the JMSDF inventory. Like the Hyuga and Ise before her, the Izumo will also be tasked primarily with anti-submarine warfare. The flight deck has five helicopter landing spots that allow simultaneous landings or take-offs, with a maximum complement of 14 helicopters theoretically possible.
Expected to be commissioned in 2015, the Izumo’s flight deck does appear to be more easily configurable to operate fixed-wing aircraft than the Hyuga class. Unsurprisingly, the Izumo’s launch has sparked controversy, having been described by the Chinese as an “aircraft-carrier in disguise.” The fact that neither the Izumo nor Hyuga-class ships are equipped with well docks for landing craft would have increased suspicion that they are designed specifically for aircraft operations.
South Korea launched the ROKS Dokdo in 2005 and commissioned it two years later. In a move that likely didn’t go down well in Tokyo, it took the Korean name of the islands at the center of a territorial dispute with Japan. A multi-purpose ship capable of handling a variety of missions, the Dokdo displaces 14,000 tons empty and 18,000 tons fully loaded. Three ships of the class were planned; however the third vessel was cancelled by a previous government. The second, the ROKS Marado, was to suffer the same fate, but funding was restored in 2012.
The Dokdo class is capable of carrying up to 720 marines and multiple vehicles, while a well dock allows for amphibious assaults. There are five landing spots on her flight deck able to operate helicopters the size of the Sikorsky S-70 Blackhawk/Seahawk, while the hangar can accommodate a maximum of 15 helicopters of various types. The Dokdo was designed specifically to conduct “Over the Horizon” amphibious operations, whereby amphibious landing operations with high-speed LCACs and helicopters are launched far from the landing beaches to minimize risks to the landing ship. Her versatility has been demonstrated in 2010, when she was part of a task force conducting search and locate operations for the corvette ROKS Cheonan, which had been sunk in a North Korean sneak attack.
It has been acknowledged that the Dokdo’s flight deck has been coated with urethane, which improves the ability of the flight deck to withstand the high temperatures of aircraft operations. However, like the JMSDF’s Hyuga-class, her irregular shaped flight deck and positioning of the forward CIWS would require extensive modification before fixed-wing aircraft could operate off her.
So are these ships aircraft carriers or not? If you (rightly) consider a helicopter an aircraft, then technically the answer is yes. But to describe these ships as aircraft carriers in the traditional sense of carrying fixed-wing aircraft for offensive purposes, things become murkier. The Liaoning and Chakri are undoubtedly intended to carry fixed-wing aircraft from the outset, even if the latter hasn’t done so for a long while now. However, the Canberra and Izumo-class ships, while having a flight deck capable of operating Short Take Off Vertical Landing (STOVL) jets such as the Lockheed-Martin F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, would still require significant modification before they could be operational in that sense.
Pic - "Asian Carriers By The Numbers!"
Another major stumbling block would be that using aircraft carriers in an offensive capacity requires the carrier itself to be escorted with its own battle group. Currently none of these Pacific navies have the warships, they have yet to fully develop the naval doctrine or tactics required, and they don’t have air and ground crews trained to operate in this way. This is all a huge undertaking, requiring years to carry through, even with help from current carrier operators such as the U.S. Navy. Other than China, none of these navies appear to have plans for this in the near future.