[Contribution] Stand out in the crowd? The CV-X in a European perspective
Leaving aside specific military needs, the South Korean decision is not exceptional 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 UK all operate one or two aircraft carriers. In addition, the sixth largest country, Spain, operates a vessel which is not classified as a carrier, but primarily performs this function. Looking more closely at why democratic European countries (i.e. leaving Russia out) operate aircraft carriers, at least two are equally or even more applicable to South Korea: maritime interests and industrial policy.
Although Korean maritime history and traditions do not match those of the four European countries, South Korea has significant and comparable maritime interests. Unlike France, Spain and the UK, South Korean interests do not include distant overseas territories. Like Italy and Spain, however, Korea is a peninsula, a testament to the importance of maritime borders. Indeed, the maritime security issues facing South Korea in its adjacent waters are arguably far greater than those facing European countries. Besides the threat from North Korea, that includes strained relations with Japan and the potential threat from its increasingly assertive sea neighbor, China.
Beyond these local concerns, South Korea’s primary maritime interest is clearly its position as one of the world’s largest maritime economies. According to the oft-cited maritime industry data provider VesselsValue, South Korea was the sixth largest “shipowner nation” in the world in 2020. By comparison, only one of the four European aircraft carrier operators is in the top 10. , namely the United Kingdom. , ranked ninth. Likewise, an assessment of the ‘world’s largest maritime nations’ in 2018, carried out by the famous international classification society DNV GL and Menon Economics, placed South Korea in fourth place (a position shared with Germany and the United Kingdom). Norway). The four European aircraft carrier operators rank below South Korea: the UK eighth, France and Italy both 10th and Spain 21st.
From a European perspective, South Korea’s decision to build a light aircraft carrier suits its maritime interests. European carrier operators all focus on maritime interest as the main reason they need carrier capacity. This includes a commitment to secure global maritime lines of communication. While South Korea is a slightly smaller economy than the UK, France and Italy, but larger than Spain, the importance of maritime interests to the South Korean economy is greater. . This is particularly the case for maritime transport – and therefore an interest in keeping the world’s oceans safe and accessible. In other words, seen from this angle, the South Korean decision does not stand out compared to European countries.
A second major reason for European decisions to keep aircraft 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 does not make sense, as shipyards often only build one of these vessels. It is clear that European carrier operators are using their defense budgets to support the national shipbuilding industry. It is by no means a solely European or naval phenomenon. Motivation is likely not only to get a job, but also to maintain industrial expertise.
Over the past four decades, South Korea has grown into one of the largest – or by some figures the largest – shipbuilding country in the world. It has far surpassed the whole of the European shipbuilding industry. Korea’s extensive expertise and capability has also enabled an ambitious construction program for the Korean Navy, featuring advanced, locally designed and built ships, such as the KSS-III submarine. Having already built two small helicopter carriers of the Dokdo class, the CV-X is a natural step forward in ambitions.
Like European shipbuilders, South Korean companies are also eyeing the export market. While the export potential of CV-X type ships may not be great, the Korean Navy contract will establish the expertise needed to build these types of ships. The Spanish experience suggests that orders can follow. The successful Juan Carlos I-class aircraft carriers have so far won two orders: two ships delivered to Australia and one (maybe two) built under license in Turkey.
Clearly, the maritime industrial argument is even stronger in the South Korean case than for European countries. The South Korean decision to build a light aircraft carrier does not stand out from the European industrial perspective.
Democratic European countries comparable to South Korea in terms of population, economy and maritime interests operate aircraft carriers. The two largest countries, France and the United Kingdom, have larger carriers; the smaller ones, Italy and Spain, have smaller and lighter carriers. Two main reasons why European countries have chosen to keep such large and expensive ships, instead of acquiring more and smaller ships, are the usefulness of aircraft carriers to protect their maritime interests and the desire to retain the expertise necessary to build such shipbuilding industry. Both reasons are equally or even more valid for South Korea. All in all, it’s safe to conclude that if South Korea had been a peninsula somewhere in Europe, its decision to build the CV-X wouldn’t stand out from the crowd.
By Paal Sigurd Hilde
Paal Sigurd Hilde is Associate Professor and Section Head for Norwegian Security Policy at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies.