After nearly two years of inactivity due to funding shortages and internal political conflicts over the program, South Korea’s CLC aircraft carrier program is poised to undergo a substantial redesign.
According to a report by local media outlet SBS News, the South Korean Defense Ministry has formally responded to a CLC inquiry from National Assembly deputy Sung-ho Jung (Democratic Party), who is also a member of the National Defense Committee.
In the letter sent to Jung, the MoD mentioned that he would shortly start working on a preliminary political inquiry into the feasibility of building a 50,000-ton class aircraft carrier.
This decision by the Ministry of Defense has been taken after carefully reviewing the DAPA (Defense Acquisition Program Administration) investigation completed in January this year.
In this investigation, DAPA concluded that the development of the naval variant of the KF-21 (referred to as the KF-21N) is fully feasible, with sufficient budget allocation and development time, which amounted to KRW 1.8 trillion (approximately 1,300 million dollars) and a long term of ten years respectively.
This change in plans is especially important, as the MoD’s shift towards a midsize aircraft carrier than the current design would entail significant modifications to the aircraft that will be operated on the ship once it is commissioned.
As it is, the MoD will most likely abandon the original plan to acquire sixteen F-35Bs and wait for the naval variant of the KF-21, an indigenous fighter currently undergoing critical testing.
Since the KF-21N can’t take off or land vertically, the next medium-sized aircraft carrier will have a CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery) or STOBAR (Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery) system.
However, KAI (Korea Aerospace Industries) has not released more information about this domestic fighter variant since DX Korea 2022.
As many have pointed out, the CVX program’s total cost will only increase as the ship’s displacement will go from just 30,000 tons to over 50,000 tons. During the past administration, the total cost of the CLC program was estimated at KRW 2.5 trillion (or USD 2.1 billion), with annual maintenance of up to KRW 50 billion (USD 45 million), but that estimate has already been criticized in the past for being ridiculously cheap to maintain for a ship of that size.
Although shipbuilder HHI (Hyundai Heavy Industries) and aircraft manufacturer KAI remain quite optimistic about the possibility of commissioning the CVX and KF-21N by 2033 with minimal increase in overall project costs, many questions remain. Techniques that both companies must master since they have no prior experience in building aircraft carriers or carrier-borne aircraft.
The MoD will review multiple factors in its preliminary policy inquiry over the coming months. A final decision is expected by the end of fiscal 2023 on whether to scale up its future aircraft carrier to a midsize carrier or retain the current design.