June 14, 2018:
During May South Korea launched its second Dokdo class large amphibious ship, the 14,500 ton Marado. The first of these ships, the 14,000 ton LPH (Landing Platform Helicopter) Dokdo entered service in 2007 and the Marado is expected to follow in 2020. In addition to being a bit larger than the first Dokdo, the Marado has a number of new features that enhance its ability to operate as an aircraft carrier. This includes more capable electronics, many of them made in South Korea as well modifications to the flight deck and the hanger deck below.
Both 199 meter long Dokdos are similar in appearance and operation to the larger American amphibious ships. The LPH flight deck can handle helicopters, as well as vertical takeoff jets like the F-35B. The Koreans deny that the ship will be used with these jets, but the capability is there. The LPH normally carries 720 combat troops, a crew of 300, ten tanks, seven amphibious assault vehicle, three towed 155mm howitzers and ten trucks. Dokdos carry fifteen aircraft (two V-22 vertical takeoff transports and 13 helicopters) and two LCAC hovercraft in the well deck for landing troops.
The Marado has a redesigned flight deck that can handle two V-22s at once instead of just one. In addition to a more powerful 3-D surveillance radar for tracking aircraft, Marado has to Phalanx anti-missile systems compared to one Goalkeeper system on Dokdo. South Korea is also going to add a locally developed and manufactured K-SAAM anti-aircraft and anti-missile system. This is similar to the existing U.S. made ESSM but with longer range and an improved guidance system.
South Korea is expected to use their LPH force for peacekeeping missions since major amphibious operations against North Korea are becoming less likely as the North Korean armed forces continue to fall apart and peace talks are finally underway.
Meanwhile, neighbor Japan has taken the Dokdo concept a bit farther. In early 2017 Japan put into service a second 27,000 ton “destroyer” (the Kaga, DDH 184) that looks exactly like an aircraft carrier. Actually, it looks like an LPH, an amphibious ship type that first appeared in the 1950s. This was noted when Izumo, the first Japanese LPH, was launched in 2012 (and entered service in 2015). The Izumos can carry up to 28 aircraft and are armed only with two Phalanx anti-missile systems and a launcher with sixteen ESSM missiles for anti-missile and anti-aircraft defense.
LPHs had no (or relatively few) landing craft but did carry a thousand or more troops who were moved ashore using the dozen or more helicopters carried. The first American LPH (the USS Iwo Jima) was an 18,400 ton ship that entered service in 1961 and carried 2,000 troops and twenty-five helicopters. Until Izumo showed up, several nations operated LPHs, and Britain and South Korea still do. The U.S. retired its last LPHs in the 1990s, but still have a dozen similar ships that include landing craft (and a well deck in the rear to float them out of) as well as helicopters. A few other nations have small carriers that mostly operate helicopters but carry few if any troops.
The Izumos are the largest LPHs to ever to enter service. It differs from previous LPHs in not having accommodations for lots of troops and having more powerful engines (capable of destroyer-like speeds of over fifty-four kilometers an hour). Izumo does have considerable cargo capacity, which is intended for moving disaster relief supplies quickly to where they are needed. Apparently, some of these cargo spaces can be converted to berthing spaces for troops, disaster relief personnel, or people rescued from disasters. There are also more medical facilities than one would expect for a ship of this size. More worrisome (to the Chinese) is the fact that the Izumo could carry and operate the vertical take-off F-35B stealth fighter, although Japan has made no mention of buying that aircraft or modifying the LPH flight decks to handle the very high temperatures generated by the F-35B when taking off or landing vertically. The Chinese are also upset with the name of this new destroyer. Izumo was the name of a Japanese cruiser that was a third the size of the new “destroyer” and led the naval portion of a 1937 operation against Shanghai that leftover two-hundred-thousand Chinese dead. The Chinese remember all this, especially the war with Japan that began unofficially in 1931 and officially in 1937.
The Izumo is part of a trend. In 2009, Japan launched its second Hyuga class “LPH”. Earlier in 2009, it commissioned the first of these "helicopter-carrying destroyers". This was the first Japanese aircraft to enter service since 1945. The Hyuga class are 197 meter (610 foot) long, 18,000 ton warships that operates up to eleven (mostly SH-60) helicopters from a full-length flight deck. Although called a destroyer, it very much looks like an aircraft carrier. While its primary function is anti-submarine warfare, the Hyuga will also give Japan its first real power projection capability since 1945. The Hyuga was also the largest warship built in Japan since World War II.
South Korea could adapt their Dokdos to handle a few F-35Bs by making the flight deck more heat resistant and rearranging the hanger deck. South Korea is getting land based F-35As which would enable them to determine if it would be worth the time and money to adapt their LPHs to carry some vertical takeoff F-35Bs. Sometimes peacekeeping missions involve some peacemaking and F-35Bs would help with that.