I did this once before for my MA Thesis, and there have been a few changes since then. This series of articles will compare the major navies in and around Asia, and one or two of the not-so-major ones, in blunt materiel terms. I am well aware that there are many variables in terms of training, doctrine, support etc. that this analysis leaves out, but here we go anyway. Today’s edition kicks off with carriers and air defence.
US Pacific Fleet
The US Pacific Fleet currently has six aircraft carriers assigned. While reductions in this number are always possible given budgetary sequestration and the excessive cost of the new Gerald R. Ford class carriers, the US carrier force will remain larger and more capable than that of any potential opponent for the foreseeable future.
Nevertheless, many would say that the carrier air wing is at a historic low point in both variety of capabilities and combat capability relative to major air forces. The Hornet and Super Hornet fighters which are the mainstay of the air wing are anemic in gross performance characteristics, notably range and speed, compared with many Generation 4 and 4.5 fighters. Meanwhile, US carriers have lost their dedicated attack, interception and fixed-wing ant-submarine components. The one dedicated capability they have fortunately retained is electronic warfare aircraft, and the EA-18G Growler is supposed to be quite capable in this area.
China has one Russian-built Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier in commission, the Liaoning. Its air wing will consist of up to 30 J-15 Flying Sharks, a locally-produced copy of the Russian Su-33 carrier based fighter, and up to 24 helicopters including the airborne early warning Ka-31. The J-15, which is an unauthorised product of reverse-engineering, is likely to suffer a number of problems common to Chinese-engineered fighters, including weak engines and avionics trouble. The Liaoning possesses none of the Kuznetsov’s considerable armament, the tubes for SS-N-19 and SA-N-9 having been removed. It retains only close-in defence capability.
China is believed to have indigenous carriers in production, and plans for up to three have been mentioned in the press. This will be very much the carrier force that the Soviet Union never built, using the same concepts and similar aircraft. Strategically, it is hard to see carriers being useful tools of power projection for China. Within the first island chain, land-based aircraft will always be more significant. Along the westward trade routes and into the Indian Ocean, the only nations worth bringing a carrier for could also overmatch a Chinese carrier force fairly quickly, or else whistle up those who can. Nevertheless, carriers are an important status symbol for an aspiring power.
India has one carrier in commission, the INS Viraat, formerly HMS Hermes. Her fixed-wing complement consists of early-model Sea Harriers which lack the Blue Vixen radar and AMRAAM capability of the FA2. Upgrades with Israeli radars and Derby missiles are ongoing, however, force numbers have fallen. Regrettably, India did not purchase UK Sea Harriers as they went out of service, which could have seen the force serve alongside the MiG-29K for years; instead, the force is dwindling in numbers.
The carrier Vikramaditya, the Kiev-class Admiral Gorshkov modified with a ski-jump, has experienced vast funding overruns and five years’ worth of delays, but looks set for delivery this year after finishing sea trials. Its fixed-wing complement will consist of up to 24 MiG-29Ks. These aircraft are not comparable to the new MiG-35 version of the Fulcrum, but have improved avionics an ordinance carriage compared with the original MiG-29.
The locally-built carrier Vikrant was launched recently, and is expected in service toward the end of the decade. Like the Vikramditya, it is of STOBAR configuration. India plans up to two more locally-built carriers of a larger design.
While Japan has no fixed-wing carriers, it possesses helicopter-carrying flattops with announced patrol, ASW and humanitarian aid missions. The hulls should be amenable to conversion into V/STOL or, in the case of the Izumo class with a more extensive refit, STOBAR or CATOBAR configuration. The two Hyuga class destroyers are comparable in size to European V/STOL carriers, while the Izumo class (of which one was recently launched and another is building) are comparable in size to US Essex class carriers. No plans for fixed-wing complement have been announced, but the possibility has caused significant speculation.
South Korea possesses two flattops in the form of the Dokdo class Landing Platform-Helicopter. Comparable to the Hyuga class in size, the South Korean government has reportedly considered the addition of the F-35B fighter to the Dokdos’ current air wing of helicopters, although their number would be limited. The class is provocatively named, after islands currently in dispute with Japan.
Australia has ordered two Canberra class Landing Helicopter Docks from Spain’s Navantia, based on the same design as the Spanish Juan Carlos I. Unlike the latter, and despite the presence of a ski-jump, there is no plan for fixed-wing aircraft, although the F-35B would be the obvious candidate.
The Chakri Naruebet, or “Chakri Dynasty,” is an earlier edition of the same design lineage as the Canberra. It was initially planned to operate a mixed air wing of helicopters and Matador aircraft, early-model Harriers. However, the Matadors’ maintenance problems rapidly left them unflyable, and the ship reduced to a helicopter carrier. Chakri Naruebet has spent much of its career at anchor due to financial problems.
Fleet Air Defence
US Pacific Fleet
American fleet air defence capabilities are second to none, at least in terms of numbers. With 22 Aegis-equipped cruisers and 62 Aegis-equipped destroyers, no nation has ever had such a numerical lead in this area. Eleven cruisers and thirty-one destroyers are currently home-ported in the Pacific area. The Aegis system is also present on Japanese and South Korean destroyers, and will equip the Australian Hobart class. Leveraging this interoperability significantly increases the system’s reach.
However, Aegis is not flawless. The additions of SM-3 for anti-ballistic missile functions, the replacement of SM-2MR with the much longer-ranged SM-6 and the addition of Enhanced Sea Sparrow for terminal defence makes the ordinance side of the system extremely solid going forward. The radar side of the system is increasingly long in the tooth however, and not only are the current AN/SPY-1 radars not active electronically scanned, placing the system somewhat behind global par, but none of the prospective replacements are likely to be compatible with the current fleet due to weight and energy requirements.
After methodical experimentation in the 2000s with various air defence designs, the PLAN seems to have standardised along a two-tier system. The Type 052C/D destroyer carries the long-range (~200 km) HQ-9 missile, based on the Russian S-300 system for fleet defence, while the Type 054A frigate carries the highly capable medium-range HQ-16 system, a version of the Russian Shtil (SA-N-12) as a second layer. Both hulls are in series production, with 6 Type 052C, 8 Type 052D and 20 Type 054A vessels known to be planned. In addition, China has two destroyer hulls each (Type 051C and Type 052B respectively) carrying S-300 and Shtil, the legacy of experimentation.
Overall, China has developed a substantial area air defence component, greater than Japan’s in number of hulls so equipped, but the PLAN overall still contends with a significant number of legacy vessels with much weaker air defence. The main question at this point is whether China’s existing equipment can match foreign systems in terms of radar performance and especially network integration.
Japan has two Atago and four Kongou class destroyers equipped with the Aegis system. These hulls are based on the American Arleigh Burke class layout, with the Atagos being equivalent to Flight IIA vessels. Despite this substantial capability, Japan has yet to plan for additional units, as compared with China’s continuous production. Other hulls use Aegis-compatible missiles, but overall, the JMSDF is falling behind its neighbour in this area.
India thus far has a somewhat weaker area air defence capability, based primarily on the Shtil systems installed on its expanding fleet of Talwar and Shivalik class frigates. Despite updates, the system depends on legacy Russian radar systems. The forthcoming Indo-Israeli Barak-8 system on the Kolkata class destroyers will have an advanced AESA radar, but is still a medium-range system.
South Korea’s fleet air defence capability is concentrated in its three superb King Sejong the Great class destroyers. Another Arleigh Burke variant, the “KDX-III” is a far more capable multi-mission platform than American Burke, but so far lacks the new SM-6 missile, and, bizarrely given the North Korean threat, has not been given Ballistic Missile Defence capability.
Australia’s three forthcoming Hobart class ships, based on the Spanish F100 design, will carry a truncated version of the Aegis system, with the SPY-1D radar and a 48-cell vertical launch system for SM-2 (possibly SM-6) and Enhanced Sea Sparrow missiles. They are capable ships for their size, and a considerable boost, considering that the RAN’s closest brush with area air defence has been upgrading the Adelaide class (based on the US Perry class) to fire SM-2 missiles. However, three ships is not much for a country the size of Australia to bank on.
Taiwan’s naval area air defence rests with the four Kee Lung (US Kidd)-class destroyers. While upgraded before transfer in the 2000s and good air defence ships for their generation, they lack a modern radar set and combat system such as Aegis to back up their SM-2MR missiles. Though puissant when acquired, the Kidds have rapidly fallen behind PRC equivalents.
Singapore’s six Formidable-class frigates are based on the French La Fayette line of frigates, and are by far the most capable variant of this design, carrying a combination of Thales Herakles radar and 32 Aster 15/30 missiles which foreshadowed the FREMM frigate project. While not as substantial in radar outfit or number of missiles as some of the major powers’ air defence ships, the Formidables are the only substantial naval air defence in Southeast Asia, and just might be the best frigates for air defence in Asia.