CVX Cost Overruns
On November 16, the National Assembly authorized KRW 500 million or USD 400,000 for the CVX program, far less than the requested budget of KRW 7.2 billion. National Assembly member Shin Won Sik even went as far as saying, “The requested budget is 30% more than previous estimates. The entire project should be reexamined because growth in the estimated cost has crossed the 20% threshold.”
While it is true that the estimated cost of the program has grown since its inception, proponents of the program say this is to be expected. The ROKN flag officer said:
“Acquisition of new platforms happens in four stages. This is because in large projects like this, unexpected expenditures need to be accounted for. We are currently in stage three which is where finalization of the budget occurs. During this stage, significant changes in the budget can be made. It’s only in the fourth stage where cost overruns of 20% or more lead to wholesale reevaluation of the project.”
Critics of the program point out that the diesel-electric submarines currently operated by the ROKN are too slow to keep up with its surface vessels, including CVX. For example, the Sejong the Great-class destroyers, the ROKN’s largest escort ship, and the Dokdo-class amphibious assault ships, the current flagships of the fleet, have a top speed of 30 kn and 24 kn respectively. The new KSS-III submarines (Dosan Ahn Changho-class) of the ROKN have a maximum speed of 20 kn. Even the fastest submarines in service with the ROKN, the smaller and less capable KSS-I (Chang Bogo-class), have a top speed of only 22 kn. This means the submarines currently in service are unlikely to be able to keep up with CVX when it is travelling at top speed which is expected to be in the mid-20 kn range. Critics say that an effective submarine escort would have to be nuclear powered, an asset that the ROKN does not have currently.
The officer, however, claimed that the slow speed of its submarines will not negate the operational effectiveness of CVX:
“Carriers and their escort group usually cruise at around 17 kn. However, with the sonar technology that is currently available, a submarine cruising at that speed near the carrier would not be an effective asset due to noise and other disturbances generated at such speeds, regardless of whether it was nuclear-powered or not.”
Because of this, escort submarines are usually deployed ahead of the carrier group. Once it confirms that there are no enemy submarines the carrier strike group commences operations in the area, while the submarine moves on to conduct surveillance in a different area. This doctrine was used to great effect during the Falklands War. HMS Conqueror, a British Churchill-class submarine, was deployed ahead of the British task force to monitor Argentine Naval assets and sank the General Belgrano, an Argentine surface vessel, before it came within range of the group.
“It’s actually better for there not to be friendly submarines in the area the carrier group is operating in,” the officer explained. “This removes the hassle of needing to identify submarine contacts detected in the carrier group’s operational area, meaning that any bogey can be targeted and neutralized immediately.”
He continued, “If the operational area of CVX changes, we will deploy submarines and anti-submarine aircraft, such as the P-3CK and P-8K, before the carrier group. Only after they have confirmed that there are no enemy assets will the carrier itself move in.”
Unmanned VTOL AEW aircraft?
Another point broached by critics would be the lack of airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft that can be deployed from the carrier. The ROKN does not yet have plans to operate AEW helicopters from CVX, let alone fixed-wing AEW aircraft, limiting its detection capabilities.
The officer, however, claimed AEW capability for CVX is not absolutely necessary given South Korea’s security environment. “North Korea has no aircraft that can threaten aircraft carriers,” he said. “In any case, we will operate the F-35 which is an amazing early warning platform in itself.”
This rebuttal does have some merit. North Korea has an almost “ancient” air force with only 35 4th-generation Mig-29 fighter aircraft. Its ability to target surface vessels using these aircraft is very limited. A greater threat would be the KN-09 surface-to-ship cruise missile which has a range of 200 km. The Sejong the Great-class destroyers’ Aegis radar is more than capable of detecting the KN-09 at that range, negating the need for an AEW platform.
However, in high-intensity conflicts with other neighbours, South Korea’s CVX is unlikely to be able to operate far from shore without AEW aircraft. China, for example, is developing the Xi’an KJ-600, a fixed wing AEW aircraft meant to be operated from its type 003 aircraft carriers. This means that in a hypothetical conflict with China, even advanced aircraft like the F-35 will have inferior situational awareness unless supported by ground-based aircraft.
“It is true that AEW platforms enhance the effectiveness of carriers in ship-to-ship engagements. However the islands over which South Korea has territorial disputes with neighbors are relatively close, meaning that we can receive support from ground-based AEW aircraft.
If the need arises we can acquire AEW helicopters. However, given the 12-year time frame [until the carrier becomes operational], we believe that we could develop an unmanned vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft to fill this role instead. Right now we are deliberating about which one to choose if we do end up acquiring AEW aircraft.”
ROKN flag officer
The development of unmanned aircraft is a global trend. Korean Aerospace Industries is developing several unmanned platforms. Moreover, the Republic of Korea Armed Forces have been focusing on the development of unmanned platforms in recent years. Other navies, such as the Royal Navy, are also planning on operating a high number of unmanned aircraft from their carriers. The ROKN seems to be trying to keep up with this trend. However, there are no unmanned VTOL AEW aircraft in service anywhere in the world. Moreover, the ROKN will likely face more budgetary challenges. Given the resistance to CVX, any plans that do exist for an unmanned VTOL AEW aircraft are likely to be preliminary.