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Japan to acquire F-35Bs to operate off modified aircraft carriers

written by australianaviation.com.au | December 19, 2018

US Marine Corps F-35Ba. (Lockheed Martin)

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.

The Izumo class ships were ostensibly built as ASW helicopter carriers. (JMSDF)

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.

Japan is set to acquire additional F-35As. (Lockheed Martin)

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.

Comments (12)

  • Derrick


    Think everyone could see it coming, the next question will be, what other countries in the region will convert their LHD into small aircraft carriers? I think South Korea will be next, Singapore have said they are looking to buy the F35B as a supplement the A model.. what is everyone else’s throughs on this

  • Ben


    Not a surprising development, keen to see what follows the Izumo class. Will they continue with the DDH concept or just go all in and design a dedicated CV?

  • PAUL


    No mucking around there, bring back the HMAS Melbourne…. Now if NZ got its act together it could increase Defence spending, buy 10 F35B’s and inter-operate them with the ADF, after getting new Transports. Maybe one day….

  • Bill


    We’re all about developing a regionally superior navy and now that some Pacific natitions are actively looking to pursue this capability, maybe its time our government had a rethink? It’s something you’d rather have and not need, than need and not have. It’s by no means a cheap project, but a handful -Bs on an LHD would send a pretty strong massage to the rest of the region.

    • Black Hawk fan


      A handful of F35-Bs taking up spots for the embarked armoured and rotary wing assets? What would be used to transport the combat brigades around if you take half of our LHD capability and modify it for a few VTOL jets? The F35 has refuel capability, keep the A models in the air and use the MRTTs to extend their range. Leave the LHD to fill the capability it was bought for.

      • Bilk


        It’s a multi-role vessel. Nothing says that it couldn’t do both if it was modified; you need a flexible and deployable force. Having a ship with even a small handful of VSTOL aircraft can send a very big message to anyone thinking about taking on a regional ally. If they LHD was deployed as part of a RAN fleet of subs, AWD and frigates, you’d sleep better at night knowing you had some sort of air combat capability, rather than just helos.

        • Black Hawk fan


          Stop trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. It would be 15+ years before you would see any benefit. First the years of modifications on the ship(s) and acquiring the F35B, test and evaluation, first of class trials. Continuation training for deck landings alone would make 1 LHD only useable for jets. Then when deeper level maintenance is required you have the Army, RAN and the RAAF fighting over 1 LHD. Use the bare airfields and refuel capability across northern Australia and use Butterworth and look at building an airfield in PNG to project further. We can’t have everything and we certainly aren’t getting an aircraft carrier or another LHD.

  • Mick C


    Derrick the Japanese Ships are not LHDs they are and have always been Aircraft Carriers, the Helicopter Destroyer bit was purely Political Smokescreen. F-35Bs for Singapore makes a lot of sense even without Carriers as you could easily disperse them to operate off Motorways.
    If Australia was to get F-35Bs I would rather see us get a real Carriier, get the Japanese to build us a Izumo or build a version of the Canberra set up to operate F-35Bs properly, operating F-35Bs off the Canberra’s as are comes across as too 1/2 a***d to me

  • RobH


    Re “Continued Radford, “It would be easy for Japanese engineers to construct a ski-jump for the bow of the Izumo…”

    Not quite. The port overhang is the beam and length it is to accommodate the ski-jump – won’t be on the bow. Using the bow would mean the forward lift being part of the runway, and that’s a very big no-no. For a good visual cue just Google an image of the Italian carrier Cavour. Will be very similar in appearance.

  • random


    @Mick C – I have to agree with you.

    If Australia went down this path it would be better served buying another Canberra class vessel and setting it up properly for carrier ops, whilst leaving HMAS Canberra and Adelaide to fulfil their already stated roles, mainly in support of Army amphibious operations. And to that end, given Navy has long been redirected to rotary wing operations, if you did get F35B they would probably be better off as embarked Airforce assets, much like the amphibious model currently used on LHDs.

    Overall, it would be a very pricey exercise – not only for initial purchase (ship, aircraft, support structures) but also for ongoing sustainment operations. I’m not sure Australia has the budget, particularly with revisions to the new submarine contract cost and duration. If the subs had been kept to original costs, then just maybe the capital would have been there.

    I’m sure this will open a can of worms – we probably should have gone nuclear from this point with the subs. Australia’s requirements are so unique (non nuclear, ultra long range, high dash speed, low noise, long loiter) that diesel battery power is always going to create massive headaches…. anyone else with these requirements is using nuclear.

  • Corey


    The current Canberra class LHDs CAN’T have F-35bs permanently on board. Furthermore, a study was done and it is cheaper to build a new ship than modify our current LHDs. I do agree we should have a larger fighter fleet with a minimum of 3 additional squadrons of 24 fighters each at a minimum. What I personally believe is yes we should build 2-3 new Canberra Flight II for the use of F-35Bs. Furthermore, we should acquire 3-4 modified PA-2 Aircraft carriers. They would be modified in a way to have only 1 island tower located further to the rear of the ship as per the USN Ford Class CVNs. They would have 3-4 EMALS catapults 2 bow and 2 waists. The ship would be lengthened slightly by about 20m. The Core crew would be no more than 650 persons with the aim to have it as low as possible and excluded the aircraft. The carrier would have a capacity of about 50+ aircraft. I would also look into using Pods for propulsion along with using LNG for a type of fuel and adding a 3rd gas turbine generator. A total crew would be around 1300 with accommodation for up to 1600. Yes, I get it would cost billions, we would have to recruit and retain members. I would also like to permanently have 1 new additional squadron based in Malasia at RAAF Base Butterworth along with permanently operating a base at Al Minhad Air Base, UAE and opening one up near our new PNG Navy base.

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