Recent news is that Japan is going to convert its two Izumo class helicopter carriers into aircraft carriers. This follows on the U.S Marines landing an F-35B VERTOL on the deck of an Izumo class carrier. It’s been about 70 years since a fixed-wing aircraft landed on one of Japan’s naval vessels. Here in the U.S., we have a hard time imagining any nation having a navy without having a fixed-wing capable carrier. Japan’s move to refit two of its helicopter carrier represents will be very significant towards Japan having a true blue water navy again, one not only capable of protecting itself but also projecting power outside Japanese territorial waters.

Along with the conversion of these two 20,000 tons ships, Japan has also purchased some 105 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, 63 of the A model which flies off runways, and 42 of the B Model which can take off vertically from carrier decks.

Now before you sneer at Japan having just 42 of these F-35s on just two carriers, it’s important to remember that small deck carriers actually have a higher sortie rate than our 100,000-ton behemoth carriers like the USS Abe Lincoln. The vertical take-off and landing abilities of the F-35B would allow several aircraft to land on the carrier almost at once, be refueled and rearmed on deck, and return for another strike. Perhaps in as little as 15 minutes.

What Japan calls its navy, the Maritime Self-Defense Force was permitted to it by the U.S. after it defeated, disarmed, and occupied Japan following WWII. It was formed with the remaining ships of the Imperial Japanese Navy,\ (hardly any) and was augmented by the sale of surplus U.S. destroyers (note the irony of that). It was strictly limited to coastal patrol as the U.S. and Japan had signed a treaty stipulating that we would defend them against attack by an aggressor. At that time, the United States had the most powerful army, navy, and air force on the planet.

Marine F-35B Izumo
A Marine F-35B lands on the Japanese carrier Izumo. (U.S. Navy)


Times Change

That is no longer true. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, some spoke of the end of history. We no longer faced an existential threat from Communism and we could afford to draw down militarily. We cut the size of the U.S. armed forces nearly in half. That included the U.S. Navy, as well, from a peak strength of 594 ships built around 16 Carrier Battle Groups, and nearly eight million tons of ship tonnage.

You could have a 1,000-ship navy of patrol craft that would displace one million tons. Numbers aren’t everything. Today, the U.S. Navy has climbed back from a very low 271 ships and 3.5 million tons in 2015, to 303 ships that will recoup about 85 percent of the eight million tons of steel we used to put to sea. This is because we are sending bigger, heavier ships to sea than we did in 1988. The new DDG-51 type guided-missile destroyer is nearly 10,000 tons, which is in the weight class of a WWII heavy cruiser. So we are building fewer, but bigger and more capable ships. Capable of just about everything but being at two places at once. The U.S. Navy is a force that deploys all over the world at the same time. Yet, more ships, perhaps smaller and less capable, can be at more places at once than big multi-mission ships that can only make a hole in the water in one place at one time.