If Japan Is A Naval Power, Why Does It Not Have Aircraft Carriers?

Robert Farley

Key point: Japan decided to build helicopter carriers instead.

Japan has decided to refit its Izumo-class light carriers to operate the F-35B stealth fighter. So modified, the Izumos will carry about a dozen F-35Bs each, giving the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force a small but significant aviation combat capability.

The question now is “what comes next?”

Japan and China

In 2006 Japan laid down the first of two fourteen-thousand-ton Hyuga-class helicopter destroyers at IHI Marine United Yokohama Shipyard. In 2012, Japan laid down the twenty-thousand-ton Izumo, a light carrier in all but name, followed shortly by her sister Kaga. While the Hyugas could conceivably operate the F-35B, there is no indication thus far that the JMSDF intends to retrofit them.

 During the same period, China (Japan’s most likely strategic competitor) acquired and refurbished an old Soviet STOBAR carrier, and then built another STOBAR carrier to a modified design. The sixty-thousand-ton Chinese carriers can carry more aircraft than the Izumos, but of older vintage than the F-35B. Between them, Liaoning and her as-yet-unnamed sister can carry some sixty J-15 “Flying Shark” fighters, in addition to helicopters and support aircraft. China’s future plans remain somewhat murky, but it is widely believed that the PLAN intends to build one or two ships to an advanced, conventional CATOBAR design, and then potentially move on to nuclear-propelled supercarriers. J-31 stealth fighters may eventually fly from the decks of these ships.

Long story short, the retrofit of the Izumos represents a real increase in capability for the JMSDF. Nonetheless, China is now several years ahead of Japan, not only in terms of the availability of platforms, but also in the development of naval aviation experience. Japan does not need to compete directly with China over the number of jets launched from flight decks, but China’s increasingly formidable naval aviation force seems to have had some influence on Japanese thinking. So, will Japan decide to compete?

Japan’s Options

Japan is an exceedingly wealthy country with a large, robust, and technologically sophisticated shipbuilding industry. If it wants to supersede the Izumos with larger, more capable carriers then it can do so; the only obstacles are political.

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