[News analysis] Why did the National Assembly slash the budget for a light aircraft carrier apart from research funds?

Posted on : 2020-12-04 18:23 KST Modified on : 2020-12-04 18:23 KST
Debate surrounding necessity of carrier for S. Korea’s defense continues
A digital illustration of the light aircraft carrier the Republic of Korea Navy is pursuing. (provided by the ROK Navy)
A digital illustration of the light aircraft carrier the Republic of Korea Navy is pursuing. (provided by the ROK Navy)

No money has been assigned in next year’s budget for the Republic of Korea (ROK) Navy’s project to build a light aircraft carrier. Observers concluded that the project has gotten off to a troubled start.

On Dec. 2, the National Assembly approved a 2021 national defense budget of 52.84 trillion won (US$49.81 billion), up by 5.4% from this year — but apart from 100 million won (US$92,447) for commissioned research and discussions, it included no money for the pursuit of a light aircraft carrier, which the ROK Navy has announced plans to acquire. The Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) originally requested 10.1 billion won (US$9.34 million) for the light aircraft carrier, but the Ministry of Economy and Finance (MOEF) slashed the entire budget because of a lack of feasibility and a deviation from standard procedures.

The 100 million won in research funds was allocated after the ongoing debate between ruling and opposition party lawmakers in the parliamentary National Defense Committee over the necessity of a light aircraft carrier raised the need to canvass opinions and establish public support. Military authorities originally planned to formulate a basic strategy to pursue the carrier through the end of this year before commencing the basic process in 2021 to complete a 30,000-ton (40,000 tons fully loaded) light aircraft carrier by the mid-2030s.

Military authorities predicted that while the budget cuts may cause schedule delays, they will not have a major impact on the project itself. But with questions being consistently raised over whether a light aircraft carrier is necessary for South Korea’s national security, it’s still possible that the project will be halted.

As reasons for the necessity of a light aircraft carrier, military authorities have cited the threat posed by North Korea and the reinforcement of naval strength among South Korea’s neighbors, as well as the protection of maritime transportation routes near the Korean Peninsula and in deeper waters. But this has been met with counter-arguments that the peninsula’s small operational radius translates into little “military utility” from aircraft making sorties from a carrier rather than on land, and that the protection of long maritime routes from the Middle East to the Korean Peninsula is a matter better resolved through diplomacy than through military strength.

Some are particularly concerned that South Korea’s possession of a light aircraft carrier capable of operating in deeper waters could lead to the US demanding its mobilization for operations in the South China Sea, a site of heated conflict between the US and China.

The enormous cost of the project has also fanned arguments that the budget is wasteful. The Navy has estimated a budget of around 2 trillion won (US$1.85 billion) for the light aircraft carrier, but that figure only includes the construction of the carrier itself. The carrier would also require F-35B aircraft with vertical takeoff and landing capabilities, along with escort vessels such as an Aegis-equipped destroyer, a frigate, and a submarine to surround it. According to estimates, these additional costs bring the budget to at least 12 trillion won (US$11.08 billion), six times the Navy’s projection.

By Park Byong-su, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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