Long-standing rumours that the Japan Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) is, for the first time since World War II, to operate shipborne fixed wing combat aircraft, have finally been confirmed.
Tokyo’s very recently published National Defence Programme Guidelines affirm that the flat-topped 27,000 tonne destroyer (helicopter) Izumo is to be upgraded, in order to operate the F-35B Lightning II short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) fighter- bomber.
According to Japan’s Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera, though, Izumo is now classified as a “multi mission escort destroyer”, and will not be dubbed an aircraft carrier. Onodera suggested that the ship will be primarily a range extender, and force multiplier, for F-35B operations. Some analysts believe that Japan-based F-35Bs of the US Marine Corps will also operate from the ship from time to time.
Izumo is currently optimised for anti-submarine and minesweeping operations by SH-60K and AW-101 helicopters respectively. The regular embarkation of STOVL fighter- bombers will certainly dilute the ship’s effectiveness in these roles.
Tokyo intends to acquire about 140 F-35s, with some 40 being the F-35B variant, the remainder the exclusively land-based F-35A version. No mention has been made of sister ship Kaga, but as vessels of this class will only be able to operate a maximum of about 12 F-35Bs each , a purchase of 40 examples implies that Kaga will probably also be upgraded in due course.
Onodera said that the necessary upgrading would not be a major task. Strengthening and heat proofing of the flight deck, and the fitting to the bow of a ski-jump take-off aid, will probably be the most demanding elements of the work required.
There is little doubt that this significant and high-profile boosting of JMSDF capabilities is an illustration of Tokyo’s concerns over the radical expansion of China’s PLA Navy. The announcement of the programme was a catalyst for both favourable and critical comment in Japan, while Beijing’s international mouthpiece, the Global Times, branded it an “aggressive move”.