I had a feature in the print edition of the Diplomat a couple of months ago on the conversion of the Izumo class aircraft carriers. You can read part of it here; for the rest, sadly, you need to buy the magazine.
In a few short years, Japan will have its first real aircraft carriers since World War II. The modification of JS Izumo and JS Kaga to carry the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter will upend, or at least update, nearly seven decades of defense thinking in Japan, and across East Asia. The combination of the Izumos with the F-35B Lightning II stealth fighter and the MV-22 Osprey transport may herald Japan’s return to serious naval competition in East Asia, with reverberations in South Korea, China, and the United States. It may also fundamentally change the identity and culture of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) and the rest of the Japanese armed forces.
I, for one, think that this is a big deal. Steve Saideman (whose blog is old-school and one you should read if you like old-school blogs) has reservations, which are less about the threat Japan poses to other countries than about where these carriers fit into Japan’s defense doctrine. Without fully answering those, I’ll say two things:
- It’s becoming increasingly apparent that combining F-35Bs and a light carrier can produce an extremely lethal platform. Here’s an article on some of the work being done by the US Marine Corps on integrating the F-35B onto the US Navy’s amphibious carriers. Especially if used in combination with V-22 Ospreys (which can be launched from the smaller Hyuga class amphibs), the Izumos are exceptionally credible threat, probably more credible than what Chinese naval aviation will be able to field for some time. Doesn’t answer the question of how to crack China’s A2/AD bubble, but the lethality of that bubble remains, at this point, largely notional.
- The restrictions on Japan’s defense and warmaking capacity are almost entirely regulated by Japan. Abe has made fairly clear that he understands self-defense in expansive terms, and there is little reason to believe that the Japanese would even need to revise article nine in order to expand their military profile. The question for Japan with regard to the Izumos isn’t really “what does this take away from?” because the limits on Japanese military are basically self-imposed. Japan is a wealthy country that can build as many aircraft carriers as it wants, and if it wants it can build them much larger than the Izumos.