Australia isn’t the only Pacific Rim country looking to modernize its Navy these days. China’s rapid shipbuilding program and work on its aircraft carrier project gets a lot of attention – but just to the east, South Korea is fielding its own AEGIS-equipped “air warfare destroyer,” while picking up new capabilities via a new class of amphibious assault LHD ship. Sound familiar? Hobart and Canberra Class, meet the KDX-III King Sejong Class AEGIS destroyer (launched May 2007) and the new “LPH” Dokdo Class LHD (commissioned July 2007).
The 199-meter, 18,860-ton Dokdo Class officially has the less aggressive designation of LPH (landing platform, helicopter), but its well deck and amphibious assault capabilities place it within the LHD category…
The Dokdo Class/ LPX
The Dokdo Class can carry up to 720 troops, plus a mix of helicopters, tanks/armored vehicles, and wheeled vehicles. Transport to shore is accomplished via landing ships or LCAC hovercraft. The Dokdo Class is only 2/3 the size of Australia’s new Canberra Class, and just over 1/3 the size of the USA’s Wasp Class; but Dokdo is the largest ship in the South Korean Navy.
For defense, they will rely on a combat system from the Samsung Thales Corp. joint venture. It will rely on Thales’ SMART-L long range 3 dimension search radar, with a detection and tracking range of 400 km/ 240 miles. For defensive responses, it can coordinate a SeaRAM guided missile system, 2 Thales “Goalkeeper” 30mm CIWS systems, and various decoying systems. Even so, support from Korea’s frigate-sized KDX-II destroyers and new KDX-III King Sejong Class AEGIS destroyers will be essential.
There has been media speculation that the Dokdo Class is in fact a light aircraft carrier, citing the ability to install a ski jump and operate V/STOL Harriers or STOVL F-35B Lightnings from its deck. America’s 42,000 ton Wasp Class LHDs are used in this manner, and it would be possible from Australia’s Canberra Class LHDs as well.
The smaller size of the Dokdo Class, however, means that using the ship in this way doesn’t make much sense. It would get one very few fighters, while sacrificing most of the ship’s total carrying capacity. Fighter aircraft require a lot of space below-decks, and so does their fuel and weapons storage. South Korea’s prime focus remains North Korea, and aerial cover for amphibious operations a la Inchon can easily be supported from land bases. Meanwhile, international operations featuring Korean LHDs would need Korean helicopters far more than they’d need Korean fighters.
Circumstances can change; but Korea’s Ministry of Defence has stated that they have no plans to operate fighter aircraft from these ships, and military logic makes this a believable assertion. This is not to say that offensive fixed wing aircraft will never operate from Dokdo. It’s just that they’re far more likely to be UAVs akin to the MQ-9 Reaper, rather than supersonic fighters.
LPX: Future Plans for the Class
The Dokdo Class ship ROKS Marado was scheduled to enter service by 2010, but its budget was canceled. That budget was restored in 2012, and recent regional tensions are making high-end ships like LHDs and Aegis destroyers more attractive to Korea. Marado commemorates a small southern island that is commonly thought of as both the ending and beginning point of Korea, depending on one’s perspective.
Up to 4 ships of class were originally planned, but doctrine has shifted toward 2-3 “rapid response fleets,” each built around 1 Dokdo Class ship and a number of destroyers. If there’s a 3rd ship of class, previous plans involved naming it after Baengnyeong Island, which is located in the Yellow Sea near the disputed Northern Limit Line (NLL) with North Korea.
Contracts and Key Events
May 23/19: Sea Trials South Korea’s second Dokdo Class helicopter carrier started Sea Trials, Jane’s reports. The Dokdo Class Landing Platform Helicopter (LPH) ships of the Korean Navy act as a command and control platform for the maritime mobile fleet and supports three-dimensional landing operations as well as maritime air operations. The Navy launched the lead ship, the ROKS Dokdo, in July 2005 and commissioned it two years later. Dokdo is the largest vessel in the South Korean Navy. The hull is divided into four decks to accommodate helicopters, assault amphibious vehicles, landing craft air cushion, tanks and trucks. The second ship will be named ROKS Marado once commissioned. Marado is a 199 meter long LPH ship that displaces 14,500 tonnes and features a through-deck flight operations area with five landing spots. It is able to carry up to 10 UH-60 helicopters, about 700 embarked troops, and 10 main battle tanks and associated support vehicles.
August 22/18: Retrofit South Korea’s Navy is funding a research project to explore the possibility of operating F-35Bs aboard its amphibious landing ships. The project aims to devise a feasible and affordable options to remodel the country’s 14,000-ton Dokdo-class vessel. Necessary work is likely to include retrofitting the ship with a ski-jump ramp, similarly to the one seen on the Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, and adapting the flight deck so that used materials can withstand the high-temperatures caused by fighter jet operations. In 2014, South Korea decided to acquire 40 F-35As at a cost of $6.4 billion, some experts speculate that the country will also opt for a few F-35Bs as means to mitigate the dangers of a future shortage of warplanes caused by decommissioning its ageing fleet of F-4s and F-5s.
May 31/18: K-SAAM According to recent reports Republic of Korea Navy’s second Dokdo-class helicopter carrier will deploy an indigenously developed weapon referred to in the country as Korean Surface-to-Air Anti-Missile. The ROKS Marado has been equipped with a Korean developed vertical launching system that will deploy those new missiles. The K-SAAM is a 3.07 m long ship-based anti-air projectile that employs inertial mid-course guidance and a dual microwave and imaging infrared seeker for terminal guidance. Development of the missile began in 2011 with first initial flight-tests conducted in 2013. The K-SAAM is a medium-range missile designed as a Close-in Weapons System (CIWS). As such, it acts as close protection for the ROKN warships. K-SAAM is set to replace Raytheon’s Rolling Airframe Missile, the current system operated by the South Korean Navy.
May 23/18: New Mission The South Korean Navy announced that the mission of its new Dokdo-class amphibious assault ship will shift from countering North Korea towards blue-water operations. The 14.500-ton Marado was launched on May 14th and boosts recently developed navigation radar and medium-range surface-to-air missiles. In addition, the 199-meter-long, 31-meter-wide LPH is to be equipped with a fixed-panel 3-D surveillance radar built by Elta Systems, a subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries, in place of the Thales SMART 3-D radar. Marado’s flight deck has been adapted to accommodate two V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. The well deck has a capacity for two landing craft. Below the deck hanger, 15 helicopters, including two V-22s, can fit while the flight deck can simultaneously accommodate up to five helicopters of all types. The Marado is expected to be fully operational in 2020 after sea trials.
May 4/17: South Korea has announced that it has started construction of its second Dokdo-class Landing Platform Helicopter (LPH) amphibious assault ship. The milestone was marked by a keel-laying ceremony at the shipyard of Hanjin Heavy Industries & Construction Co. in Busan, and it is expected that the vessel will be launched in April of next year. It will be delivered to the South Korean Navy in 2020, following sea trials. Seoul’s undertaking in constructing such vessels has been noted as its most major naval transport project in over a decade.
April 13/09: Samsung Thales Corp’s senior vice president, Byun Seung-wan, is quoted by Defense News as saying that Dokdo’s combat system is drawing regional interest:
“Southeast Asian countries have shown interest in one developed for the… Dokdo…. About two years ago, STC completed the five-year Landing Platform Experimental (LPX) combat system, in cooperation with the ADD, based on expertise gathered from its development of combat systems for the South Korean Navy’s KDX-I/II destroyers, frigates and patrol ships…. STC was the prime contractor for the integration and development of the command support and the command and fire-control system.”
The article also traces STC’s growth as a global developer of naval and land combat and battlefield management systems.
July 3/07: The ROKS Dokdo is handed over to the Navy in a ceremony. KOIS report.
Note that the name Dokdo is politically significant, referring to a set of islands whose territorial claim is disputed with Japan. The Korean perspective on Dokdo/Takeshima may be found here. Unsurprisingly, Japan filed a diplomatic protest over the name back in 2005. Asian countries tend to have civilization confidence, however, and the Korean reply was rude.
Additional Readings & Sources
* ROK Navy – Landing Platform, Helicopter (LPH). It certainly sounds more low-key than “LHD amphibious assault ship.” Even if that’s what it is.
* Navy Recognition – Dokdo class LPH – ROK Navy: also known as LPX, Landing Platform Helicopter, Amphibious Assault Ship
* GlobalSecurity.org – LP-X Dokdo (Landing Platform Experimental) Amphibious Ship
* Wikipedia – Dokdo-class amphibious assault ship
* KBS “News in Zoom” – Asia’s Largest Landing Ship-LPX, “Dokdo”
News & Views
* Defense News (April 13/09) – Automating Naval Warfare: Samsung Thales Making Name in Combat Systems [dead link].
* Information Dissemination (April 24/08) – Observing the ROKS Dokdo (LPH 6111)
* ‘Manoeuvre’ in Maritime Asia (April 22/08) – ADD Naval Weapons Arm to Develop UAV’s? [dead link]. They seem to be interested in UAVs that can take off and land in 200m. Which happens to be the size of the Dokdo Class’ flight deck.