China has an aircraft carrier. (And it's building three more).
But as it turns out, China's not the only country that has caught the aircraft carrier bug. All of a sudden, all around East Asia, it's as if aircraft carriers are the next Tesla motorcars -- all the cool kids want one.
Thailand has an aircraft carrier -- the HTMS Chakri Naruebet, flagship of the Royal Thai Navy.
Japan has two carriers (although it insists on calling them both "helicopter destroyers"). And Japan is building two more such vessels, each 33% bigger than its current carriers.
South Korea's so-called landing platform helicopter ship, the Dokdo, may be capable of carrying Lockheed Martin's (NYSE:LMT) short take-off/vertical landing variant of the F-35 fighter jet. The country plans to build a second Dokdo-class vessel with a "ski ramp" to facilitate STOVL aircraft operations -- then two fully fledged light aircraft carriers of 30,000 tons displacement, due to float sometime between 2028 and 2036.
Why, India has two and a half aircraft carriers. The Soviet-built INS Vikramaditya was inaugurated as India's new flagship in November, joining the British-built INS Viraat (which is soon to retire). The country's first homegrown carrier, the INS Vikrant, went to sea last August, although it isn't expected to enter service before 2018.
If all of this makes it sound like the Indian Ocean is getting crowded -- well, it is. And these waters could be getting even more cluttered soon, because we just learned that yet another local seapower wants to throw a big boat in the tub: Singapore.
Welcome to the club, Singapore!
Currently, 11 nations around the world have vessels that can at least arguably be called "aircraft carriers." This week, DefenseNews.com reported that Singapore's Ministry of Defence may want to round out this number at a dozen.
Singapore already operates four "landing platform dock ships" similar in function to South Korea's landing platform helicopter amphibious assault ship. At last month's Singapore Airshow, though, the MoD trotted out a new landing helicopter dock, that would also be similar in design to Korea's Dokdo. Weighing in at 14,000 tons, this Endurance-160 multirole support ship, if built, could include a ski ramp permitting the vessel to more easily launch and recover multiple F-35B STOVL fighter jets from Lockheed.
Two routes for the U.S.
What does all this mean for the U.S. Navy, for American taxpayers, and for ... defense investors? It depends.
Specifically, it depends on whether you think of all these new aircraft carriers crowding the Asian waterways as potential allies, or as rivals. On the one hand, one of the key rationales for America's maintaining an 11-aircraft carrier navy has been our need to patrol international trade routes and secure the safety of other nations' ships on the high seas.
With South Korea, Thailand, India, China, and Singapore now currently (or soon to be) aircraft carrier-equipped, though, these nations are arguably capable of taking over these tasks from America's overworked navy. This could give our sailors some downtime and lighten the load on U.S. taxpayers as well. That's the optimistic scenario. (It would, however, be bad news for American defense contractor Huntington Ingalls (NYSE:HII) -- which likes building American aircraft carriers, and gets paid about $13 billion for each new carrier it builds.)
The pessimistic scenario would be to view these foreign warships as potential threats to U.S. interests -- requiring the U.S. to build more aircraft carriers, rather than fewer -- to both fulfill our duties and also maintain enough seapower to outmatch these new carrier-equipped fleets.
Which view will prove the right one? Time will tell. But for the time being, Huntington Ingalls is keeping up its work on the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) -- just to be safe.