The U.S., Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam have bristled at the test voyage of China's first aircraft carrier, showing off their own weapons and threatening to bolster their nuclear arsenals, but neighbor Korea has yet to respond. There are calls from within the military that strategies and plans to cut troops must be reassessed.
Military officers fear that the deployment on the West Sea of carrier-based aircraft and escort vessels would make it more difficult for the Korean Navy's ships to operate in the region, and affect airborne capabilities as well. Korea's entire airspace would fall within the operational reach of fighter planes on the Chinese carrier.
U.S. aircraft carriers have an operating area of more than 1,000 km, but the Chinese carrier, which has been converted from an old Soviet Varyag, is believed to have a range of between 500 km to 800 km. The SU-33 fighter jets, which are the most likely to be based aboard the ship, have a range of around 800 km.
Military officers believe there is a possibility that China will deploy the carrier around islands that are under territorial dispute in order to flex its muscle rather than in the West Sea, which has a rather limited operational area. Fighter planes on the carrier could be equipped with anti-ship missiles. The SU-33 can be loaded with Kh-31 or 41 supersonic air-to-ship missiles with a maximum speed of Mach 2.5 to 3.5 and a range of between 110 km to 120 km. Experts say that the Korean Navy must boost its supersonic anti-ship cruise missile capabilities so that they can attack carrier aircraft and submarines.
Supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles are considered highly effective against aircraft carriers. China's Russian-made SS-N-22 Sunburn anti-ship cruise missiles can reach speeds of more than Mach 2.5 and are feared by U.S. aircraft carrier groups. The Korean Navy has U.S.-made Harpoon missiles and homegrown Haesung missiles, but they cannot reach supersonic speeds and can be shot down in flight.
Some experts suggest introducing a greater range of submarines. Park Chang-kwon, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said, "China's anti-submarine capabilities are still weak, so submarines should be the most effective response to the aircraft carrier." The West Sea has an average depth of just 40 m, which makes it more suitable for small subs weighing between 300 to 500 tons, rather than larger submarines. "We should look into operating nuclear-powered submarines as well, since they are effective in the East Sea and other areas including the high seas where the waters are deep," an officer said on condition of anonymity.