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Japan is set to deploy its first aircraft carriers since World War II. The Japanese Navy will modernize two helicopter destroyers into de facto aircraft carriers. This will increase the number of carrier operators in the Asia-Pacific region.
Historically the Imperial Japanese Navy placed a heavy emphasis on aircraft carriers. The Hōshō, when she was commissioned on December 27, 1922, was the first purpose built aircraft carrier in the world. Going into the Battle of Midway in June 1942 Japan had the largest aircraft carrier fleet in the world. This did not last. By the end of the war many carriers had been sunk, mostly by the U.S. Navy. After the war the remaining carriers were scrapped and Japan entered a period of disarmament, adopting a Constitution in 1947 that forbade the maintenance of forces that could wage war.
Amid the Korean War and Cold War, with U.S. support, military capabilities were rebuilt for the purpose of self-defense, which was deemed constitutional.
Recently Japan’s neighbors have began acquiring carriers. China is building a fleet of large aircraft carriers. One of them, Shandong, sailed through the Taiwan Strait on November 17 with fighter jets on deck. The passage, which could be interpreted as a show of force, was reportedly trailed by U.S Navy and Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) vessels. South Korea is also planning its first jet-equipped carriers.
Against this backdrop the interpretation of the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution has shifted under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Japan will not have aircraft carriers, but it will have Multi-Purpose Operation Destroyers. To a lay person the difference is only in the name. Two current ‘Helicopter Destroyers’ will be modified to carry F-35B fighters.
Actually, the return to de facto aircraft carriers has been a multi-step journey, at least in naval architecture terms. Starting in the Cold War, Japan built extra-large destroyers equipped with more helicopters than those of other nations. The Shirane class were 7,500 tons and could carry 3 Sea King helicopters. Other countries’ destroyers could carry one or two helicopters. But there was no suggestion that they might carry jet aircraft.
The ships which followed them were in a different league altogether. Euphemistically called ‘helicopter destroyers,’ these have the look and feel of flat-top aircraft carriers. And at 19,000 tons they are larger than some of the light carriers in service with other navies. But the biggest was yet to come. The follow-on Izumo class comes in at 27,000 tons. It is these 2 ships which are slated to receive F-35B Lightning-II jets.
Japan formally announced the purchase of 42 Lockheed Martin F-35B jets in August. These are the jump jet version, capable of short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) operations. This allows them to operate aboard Japan’s new carriers. The air force already operates the larger F-35A model which is not capable of landing on the new carriers. By the time the -B models enter service, probably in the 2020s, the carriers should be ready to receive them.
Japan’s carriers will be smaller and fewer than China’s, but they slow the pace by which the JMSDF is being overtaken by the rapidly modernizing Chinese fleet.
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