South Korea has made it official and is building one or more aircraft carriers for its F-35B stealth fighters. A 30,000-ton LPX II “amphibious ship” was added to the 2021-25 defense spending plan. LPX II would be similar but superior to the Japanese DDH “F-35B carrier” and would be able to carry up to 20 F-35Bs. While the designation LPX II indicates a larger amphibious ship, the LPX II will be built as an aircraft carrier, without facilities for carrying marines and their equipment. For several years South Korean defense officials have discussed building one or more 30,000-ton ships that look like the Japanese DDH (destroyer helicopter carrier) and are modified to handle a dozen or more F-35Bs.
South Korean plans became more obvious when the second Dokdo class LPH (Landing Platform Helicopter) entered sea trials in 2020. As of 2020 South Korea now had two 19,500-ton Dokdo class large amphibious ships. These South Korea LPHs 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. Until recently Korea denied that Dokdos would be used with these jets, but the capability was there. The LPH normally carries 720 combat troops and their heavy equipment. Dokdos also carry fifteen aircraft; two V-22 vertical takeoff transports and 13 helicopters. Marado, the second Dokdo, 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 two Phalanx anti-missile systems. Marado was apparently modified so it could more effectively handle six or more F-35Bs.
The Dokdo have a crew of 330 plus the ability to carry 720 marines. The ship’s crew includes pilots and maintainers for the helicopters. The LPX II would have a crew of over 500, including aviation personnel (pilots, planners and maintainers).
Meanwhile Japan had already ordered some F-35Bs so that it could experiment with some of these aircraft aboard the existing Japanese DDHs. Since 2017 Japan has had two 27,000 ton “destroyers” (DDH type ships) that look exactly like an aircraft carrier. These Izumo class ships can carry up to 28 helicopters or up to ten vertical takeoff aircraft. The carriers are armed only with two 20mm Phalanx anti-missile cannon and launchers with sixteen ESSM missiles for anti-missile defense. The DDH have powerful engines capable of destroyer-like speeds of over fifty-four kilometers an hour. Izumo has 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 carry additional weapons and equipment needed to support F-35B fighter-bombers. Izumo could carry and operate at least ten F-35Bs once modifications are made to the flight deck to deal with the extremely high temperatures the F-35B generates when taking off or landing vertically (like a helicopter). When the first DDH entered service in 2015 Japan made no mention of buying F-35Bs or modifying the LPH flight decks to handle the very high temperatures. The Izumos already have an elevator (to the hanger deck under the flight deck) powerful enough to carry an F-35B fighter.
Another factor that makes operating F-35Bs from an LPH or DDH possible is the availability of smart bombs and small air-to-ground guided missiles for warplanes. An LPH or DDH was not designed to haul a lot of munitions for aircraft. The number of smart bombs and missiles needed to make five or ten F-35Bs effective would not be large. These ships already carry a lot of fuel for helicopters and have space for maintenance gear to support many helicopters. South Korean and Japanese naval planners noted this when they suggested using LPHs and DDHs as platforms for F-35Bs. Now both nations are moving towards that goal.
In late 2019 South Korea announced it was buying 20 more F-35 stealth fighters. There are already 40 delivered or on order. Those 60 F-35s will cost $9.7 billion and a decision still has to be made as to whether any of the second 20 will be the VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) F-35B version. The first 40 will all be the basic F-35A which just operates from land-based airfields. But South Korea has ships that F-35Bs could operate from.
In mid-2020 Japan ordered another 105 F-35 stealth fighters. Added to earlier purchases this means Japan will have 147 F-35s. That large force of stealth fighters won’t be in service until the mid-2020s because of growing demand for F-35s and limited production capability. Japan will help by manufacturing some components and assembling their F-35s in Japan. Most (63) of the new fighters will be the land-based F-35A model but 42 will be F-35Bs, the VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) version that can operate from carriers. Japan already had 42 F-35As on order to replace 73 F-4 interceptors. The new F-35As on order are to replace a hundred older F-15J fighter-bombers. At this point Japan became the largest export customer for the F-35.
Japanese and South Korean fighter pilots agree that the F-35 is an impressive combat aircraft and have been pointing out the many things the F-35 can do that current fighters cannot, as well as doing anything existing fighters do but doing it more effectively. This has been the experience of all F-35 pilots and those in training. It also justifies building small carriers operating 5-20 F-35Bs because these aircraft, equipped with smart bombs and missiles, are as effective as a 1990s carrier carrying two or three times as many combat aircraft.
As more F-35s enter service, their database of effective tactics and operating techniques are rapidly expanding. One thing the F-35 does extremely well is to use automated flight controls that allow the pilot to carry out maneuvers that would require a lot more experience in older aircraft but are much easier for an F-35 pilot. The more experienced pilots know a lot more useful maneuvers than new pilots but because of the adaptive F-35 flight control software, it is much easier for new pilots to master an unfamiliar maneuver. The best way to explain this is the experience of British carrier pilots who formerly flew Harrier vertical takeoff and landing aircraft and were now using the F-35B. The British pilots said difficult carrier landings that can be terrifying in a Harrier were surprisingly easy with an F-35B. As British pilots began carrying out landings on the new British carrier they were pleasantly surprised. The F-35B flight control automatically adapted to all the rapidly changing wind and carrier movement variables and allowed you to land without a lot of stress. Handling the F-35B, in general, was much easier, and safer, than the Harrier. Hovering, for example, required a lot of continuous effort and attention from a Harrier pilot. In the F-35B the pilot could fly the aircraft to a position and hover and the aircraft would remain where it was flown to without additional effort by the pilots no matter how much the weather changed.
All this ease of flying enables F-35 pilots to concentrate on something that does still require a lot of decision making by the pilot; stealth management and threat management. The stealth characteristics of the F-35 make it more difficult for radar to detect it. How the pilots fly in a combat zone can improve the effectiveness of stealth. That is done by learning to manage the flood of “threat management” data that F-35 pilots have access to. By being able to concentrate on stealth and threat management F-35 pilots achieve what has been the key element in air combat since 1914; getting in the first shot. From 1914 into the 1940s the key to success in air-to-air combat was knowing how to fly into a position where you would see the enemy first and carry out a surprise attack. The earliest of these tricks was the World War I tactics of trying to have the sun behind you to make it more difficult for the enemy to see you coming. Another tactic was trying to get higher and out of sight (for as long as possible) until you could dive on the enemy aircraft at a high speed and unexpectedly attack. In effect, “stealth” and the resulting surprise was always the key to victory. The F-35 was designed with that in mind. The radar stealth and maneuverability isn’t as good as the F-22, but in the F-35 a pilot's “situational awareness” is much better. Pilots who have flown the F-22 and F-35 always note that and point out that, in the hands of an experienced pilot, it makes the F-35 a more effective aircraft than the older and more expensive F-22.
The F-35 was designed to have “affordable stealth” and much more effective sensors and electronics. The F-35 stealth is much less expensive than that in the F-22 and initial Israeli combat experience over Lebanon and Syria indicates that the stealth and internal electronic countermeasures more than make up to for that. The passive sensors and “sensor fusion” software of the F-35 also appear to be working as advertised. In the cockpit, the pilot has one large (20-inch diagonal) LCD showing all needed aircraft data with more showing on the pilot's JHMDS helmet visor. That is all very well, but as with the very capable F-22, it wasn’t the performance that limited procurement but excessive cost.
What the F-35 flight management software and situational awareness demonstrate is that the usual measures of a superior fighter aircraft (speed and maneuverability) no longer matter as much. An F-35 is more likely to see the other aircraft first, fire first and be more aware of the changing battle situation than enemy pilots in, on paper, faster and more maneuverable aircraft.
Even when the F-35 is hit and damaged the flight control software senses the damage and automatically flies differently to compensate for the damage. That takes a lot of stress off the pilot who can concentrate on threat and stealth management to complete the mission and get the aircraft back to base. Another important aspect of the F-35 is that its flight control and threat management software is built to be constantly updated by pilot experience. As more pilots fly the F-35 and experiment with different techniques, its software is updated to become more capable. Those updates require more attention to post-change testing. That’s because there are so many interconnections within the flight control software. Those have to be tested to prevent unexpected results when the pilot is most vulnerable to that sort of thing.