After 76 Years, Japan Has Aircraft Carriers Again

·3 min read
  • A U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Joint Strike Fighter landed last month on the Japanese aircraft carrier Izumo.

  • The event marked 76 years since the last time Japan operated an aircraft carrier.

  • Japan will operate at least two carriers by 2030, all with American help.

The United States Marine Corps and Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force made history last month with an epic flight that relaunched Japan’s carrier aviation program.

The flight involving the Japanese aircraft carrier Izumo and American F-35B fighter jets marked the first time Japan has operated an aircraft carrier since 1945. Japan was one of the first pioneering naval aviation powers, but its involvement in World War II saw the destruction of nearly its entire fleet battle force—particularly the carriers.

The flight took place on October 3 in the Pacific Ocean. Two F-35B Joint Strike Fighters operating from Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni took off from mainland Japan, refueled in midair, and then landed on the ship JS Izumo. The F-35Bs landed vertically on Izumo’s flight deck and then performed a rolling takeoff. The MSDF shared the video below on Twitter:

In December 1941, Japan operated the largest and best-trained carrier force in the world. Japan was heavily reliant on its navy for power projection and took a natural liking to the concept of operating planes from ships. The Imperial Japanese Navy built the world’s first purpose-built aircraft carrier, Hosho, in 1922. (Other countries, including the United States, built early carriers by using the hulls of other types of ships.)

Four years later Japan had no carriers to speak of, their remaining flat-tops rendered inoperative or sunk by the combined might of the Allied forces. After the war, Japan’s new pacifist-minded democratic government banned aircraft carriers as tools of offensive warfare. The United States Navy, which had decisively out built the Imperial Japanese Navy during the war, became the dominant carrier power in the postwar years.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kaila Peters
Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kaila Peters

The rise of the Chinese Navy caused Japan to rethink its ban on carriers, however. The successor to the Imperial Navy, the Maritime Self Defense Forces, built two large warships in the early 2010s. Izumo and her sister ship Kaga were technically classified as “helicopter destroyers” but featured full-length flight decks, an island for overseeing flight operations, and elevators capable of ferrying a F-35B from the hangar to the flight deck. In 2018 Tokyo approved plans to convert both ships to an aircraft carrier configuration, which involved heat-proofing the flight deck and adding support systems for F-35Bs.

Japan has 42 F-35Bs on order from the U.S., but the aircraft have not arrived and Japan’s F-35 pilots are not trained in short takeoff and vertical landing operations. The Marine Corps, however, operates two F-35B squadrons at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, on the Japanese mainland just south of Hiroshima. After some discussion, Washington and Tokyo agreed on the exercise. Both countries get something out of it: U.S. Marines proved they can operate from foreign carriers, while Izumo’s crew was able to practice carrier operations in a way it wouldn’t otherwise get to do for at least a year.

Whether or not this causes China to reconsider its military approach? Only time will tell. In the meantime, the 76-year spell has been broken and Japan’s aircraft carrier genie is officially out of the bottle.

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