Japan will have its first aircraft carriers since World War 2 after announcing its intention to acquire up to 42 short takeoff and vertical landing F-35B variants of the Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter to operate off its Izumo class helicopter carrier ships.
The decisions are part of a larger defence review announced by the Japanese government on December 18. The plan calls for an initial buy of 18 F-35Bs to stand up the capability and to integrate the aircraft with Japan’s two 27,000 tonne Izumo class helicopter carriers – technically helicopter destroyers (DDHs) – JMS Izumo and Kaga.
“We will refit Maritime Self-Defense Force multipurpose helicopter destroyers so fighter jets capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings can be deployed when necessary,” the Japanese government’s newest five-year defence plan reads, the Japan Times reported.
The 27,000 tonnes displacement Izumo class ships were designed to carry helicopters primarily for anti-submarine warfare, with the lead ship Izumo commissioned in 2015 and sistership Kaga commissioned in 2015.
Presumably the Izumo ships would require a level of modifications as that considered but rejected in 2015 as too complex for Australia’s two-similarly sized LHD amphibious assault ships to enable them to embark and support F-35B operations – such as heat-resistant deck treatments, approach landing aids and modifications to the ships’ aviation fuel storage and weapons bunkerage.
However, it has long been conjectured that the Izumos had been designed with F-35B operations in mind.
“Izumo sports a full-length, 248-metre flightdeck, an all-round visibility flight control island, and a hull that has been subtly sponsoned out to a 38m beam at flightdeck level,” Philip Radford wrote on the ASPI Strategist blog back in 2013.
“To put this non-carrier into perspective, the new Izumo is almost exactly the same size, shape and displacement as the Royal Navy’s old HMS Hermes – the flagship of the task force that recaptured the Falklands. At the height of that conflict, Hermes operated 26 Harrier jump jets and 10 Sea King helicopters.”
VIDEO – The F-35B is already at sea with the US Marines, operating off US Navy amphibious assault ships, as this US Navy YouTube video of the aircraft’s first combat strike mission shows.
Continued Radford, “It would be easy for Japanese engineers to construct a ski-jump for the bow of the Izumo, so it could operate these jets in the same manner as the Royal Navy. And it’s worth noting that the Izumo’s flightdeck is approximately 40 metres longer, and its flightdeck two metres wider, than the Royal Navy’s HMS Invincible, which operated 16 Harriers during the Falklands War. This implies a potential complement in excess of 20 aircraft.
“Alternatively, the Japanese Navy could operate them in the same manner as the US Marines without the ski-jump, though that would impact on bad-weather operations and reduces payload and range.”
Importantly, the US Marine Corps already bases F-35Bs in Japan
Japan to be second biggest F-35 operator
Japan’s 27.5 trillion yen (A$340 billion) defence review also flagged the acquisition of an additional 63 conventional F-35A fighters on top of the 42 F-35As currently on order, which combined with the F-35B buy would take Japan’s total F-35 fleet to 147 aircraft.
That would make Japan the second largest F-35 operator, ahead of the UK (which is buying 138), and giving it twice as many as Australia, which is currently acquiring 72.
Bloomberg reports that Japan is considering switching from domestic final assembly of the F-35 to importing the aircraft complete from the US, which would reduce the unit price significantly.
Bloomberg also reports the review also commits Japan to locally develop a replacement for the Japan Air Self Defence Force’s Mitsubishi F-2 fighters.