The Japanese government is considering a bold plan: converting its largest ships to carry the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in order to shore up a key defense vulnerability. The country’s use of aircraft carriers during World War II, however, has made loathe to actually use the phrase “aircraft carrier,” instead preferring the term “multi-purpose operational mother ship”.
In the early years of World War II, Japan had the largest and most power aircraft carrier fleet in the world. An island nation bereft of natural resources, Japan needed to procure them abroad, making a powerful navy vitally important. Japan’s carrier force swept across the Pacific, bombing China, attacking Australia, and infamously the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.
In the aftermath of the war Japan became a pacifist country, swearing off war as a tool of national policy. It banned entire categories of offensive forces and weapons, including bombers, marines, and aircraft carriers. Now, after a 73 year absence, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is looking to bring back aircraft carriers to help protect Japanese airspace in areas where Japan and China have territorial disputes.
The problem: Japan and China both claim a small cluster of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. Known as the Diaoyu islands to China and the Senkaku islands to Japan, the islands are themselves without value. The islands do sit on top of significant amounts of natural resources, giving whoever owns them legal authority to exploit significant amounts of oil and natural gas.
China’s air forces have flown repeated missions in and around the East China Sea, including several populated islands in Japan’s Ryukyu island chain. This is an area where Japan’s powerful Air Self Defense Force, the largest operator of F-15 Eagle fighters outside the United States operates at a disadvantage: the densely packed country has just one air base in the Ryukyu chain, a mixed commercial airport/military base on Okinawa.
, the LDP party, of which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is a member, is looking into converting at least one—and probably two—of the country’s new Izumo-class “helicopter carriers” into carrying the F-35B fighter bomber. The refit would install all the necessary equipment to operate a small force of F-35Bs from Izumo. Izumo could then sail off the Ryukyu islands, its small air wing contributing to the area’s defense. Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force would almost certainly also convert Izumo’s sister ship, Kaga, as well. (If that name sounds familiar, it's because .)
Pacifism is deeply ingrained in Japan’s political culture and “aircraft carrier” is a particular jarring phrase, so the LDP is proposing the carriers be called “multi-purpose operational mother ships.” This would allow Tokyo to claim the converted Izumo class ships could take on a variety of missions, including post-earthquake disaster relief, convoy escort in wartime, defensive anti-submarine warfare...and of course, flying jet fighters. The situation is further complicated by , giving it the ability to strike nuclear-tipped missiles in North Korea before they launch.
Japan has performed similar semantic gymnastics before. Japan has previously banned marine troops, but the new —actually, a marine brigade—was deemed acceptable because the unit’s mission is overall defensive: to defend or take back Japanese territory. Izumo and Kaga are called “helicopter destroyers,”despite the fact they carry little in terms of destroyer armament. China, of course, refers to both ships as aircraft carriers.
The conversion process will probably take a few years. Izumo and Kaga need expanded facilities for storing aviation fuel, weapons, and the naval version of the all-important . Japan will almost certainly install a "ski jump" on the bow similar to the UK’s Queen Elizabeth or China’s Type 001A carriers, to help the F-35s get aloft while laden with fuel and weapons. Most importantly, Japan will have to order F-35Bs--while Tokyo already has several F-35s, they are the -A model for use from conventional airfields. The F-35B model, ordered by the U.S. Marine Corps, United Kingdom and Italy, is capable of short takeoffs and vertical takeoffs and landings from ships. All in all, Japan could have its first new aircraft carriers by 2025--eighty years after the end of World War II.