The Buzz

Will Japan Become an Aircraft Superpower Again?

Japan is eyeing a return to the aircraft carrier business, according to a report from Reuters.

This week, Reuters reported, citing three unnamed government officials, that Japan is actively considering refitting its massive Izumo-class helicopter destroyers to carry American stealth fighters. Specifically, the Izumo-class destroyers—of which Japan has two ships—would be able to carry the F-35B, which has a short take-off and vertical landing capability. Other newspapers have since confirmed the report, citing their own sources within the Japanese government.

Following the Reuters report, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera issued something of a denial, although hardly a full-throated one. "Regarding our defense posture, we are constantly conducting various examinations. But no concrete examination is under way on the introduction of F-35B or remodeling of Izumo-class destroyers," Onodera said, local media reported. He added, however, that “there is a need to always be considering various alternatives."

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This lukewarm denial notwithstanding, the notion of Japan transforming one or both of the ships into an aircraft carrier is hardly outlandish. As the Reuters article notes, they were built with a hanger that can handle aircraft. And, when the first ship was unveiled in 2013, many observers called it an “aircraft carrier in disguise.” It is not difficult to see why. The ship is roughly 250 meters (820 feet) long and displaces 24,000 tons. As I noted back in 2013, the helicopter “destroyers” are "about 50 percent bigger (in terms of displacement) than Japan’s current largest ship, the Hyuga-class helicopter destroyer." Others have pointed out that the ships are actually larger than Spain and Italy’s short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft carriers.

According to the sources who spoke to Reuters, the refitting would include “adding a curved ramp at the end of the flight deck, improving the deck's heat resistance against jet burners, and reinforcing the ship's air traffic control capability." That is similar to what experts predicted would be necessary when the first vessel was commissioned. For instance, writing for the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) in 2016, Matthew Gamble noted that “the potential for operating STOVL aircraft from these vessels is high.” To handle the F-35, for instance, Gamble wrote that the vessel would need Thermion coating to protect it from the extreme heat of the F-35's exhaust. He went on to say that it would most likely also need a ski-jump to help with take-offs.

Before making changes to the ships, however, Japan would first need to purchase the aircraft. Tokyo is already a partner in the Joint Strike Fighter program, having announced plans to procure forty-two F-35s in late 2011. All of these planes will be the F-35A variant that does not have a STOVL capability. There have also been reports in recent months that Tokyo was considering buying more F-35s. In fact, Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) told The Washington Examiner in September that there was a letter of intent in place for Tokyo to purchase more F-35s, but did not say how many or what kind. It is possible the letter of intent is for F-35Bs.