December 18, 2018

SEA STORY: There Is Only 1 Thing Stopping Japan from Building Real Aircraft Carriers. “Politics.”

Something like the sixty-five-thousand-ton Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier is not at all beyond Japanese shipbuilding capabilities. With the F-35B, such a ship would immediately be competitive with, and indeed likely superior to, China’s Liaoning-class aircraft carriers. However, the dependence on the F-35B would limit Japan’s options down the road. Unless Japan decided to develop its F-3 stealth fighter as a STOVL aircraft, the F-35B would be the only plausible shipborne fighter for the operational lifespan of Shokaku and Zuikaku. However, these ships could still operate an array of advanced unmanned aircraft, as well as any F-35B replacements developed by the United States. Experience gained by operating the F-35B with the Izumos would feed directly into a “Queen Elizabeth” style ship. Pilots and crew will develop invaluable experience with landings, takeoffs, and shipboard maintenance that Japan has lacked since 1945.

But unlike China, Japan enjoys the benefit of extensive military and industrial relationships with countries that currently operate aircraft carriers, including the United States and the United Kingdom. Thus, Japan does not necessarily need to take the kind of slow, methodical approach to carrier development that China has taken.

To repeat: the only serious obstacles to Japan’s construction of fleet carriers are political. But political obstacles are still obstacles, and the appearance of “Shokaku” and “Zuikaku” would have significant repercussions at home and abroad.

Japan’s smaller Isuzmo-class “helicopter carriers” are already being made ready to fly F-35Bs, and for now at least the idea of them building bigger and more capable carriers is pure conjecture — but one possibly causing some sleepless nights in Beijing. And if Beijing doesn’t like Japan’s ongoing (and quite real) naval rearmament, well, they have no one to blame but themselves.

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