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.


The U.S. Navy’s Drawdown Boosted China

Enter China, which only had a relatively small coastal navy to protect itself. Back when the U.S. Navy was nearly 600 ships and 500,000 personnel strong, China looked at the numbers and probably thought, “We could spend enormous sums of money trying to build our own 600-ship navy to match the Americans and we’d probably still lose in a fight with them.” So they didn’t even bother. But when the U.S. fell to under 300 ships, the math changed.

USS Paul F. Foster China
Aboard the USS Paul F. Foster, Qingdao, China, November 24, 2002. Sailors aboard the Spruance-class destroyer “Man The Rail,” as a welcoming party of local officials and military leadership from the People’s Republic of China prepare for the ship’s arrival honors.

Now, China could say to itself, “If we build that expensive 600-ship navy now, we’d outnumber the Americans two to one and we could win!”

So that is what it did. China began cranking out warships and submarines at a wartime production rate.  Here are the estimates of Chinese naval production in 2020:

78 submarines;

60 stealth-guided-missile ships;

40 corvettes;

24 modern all-purpose frigates;

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20 state-of-the-art destroyers;

12 guided-missile cruisers

Four fleet support ships;

Three helicopter carriers;

Five amphibious assault ships;

Two aircraft carriers.

What is missing and rather tellingly are any fleet-replenishment vessels that carry oil, aviation fuel, parts, food, and other supplies that can keep a fleet at sea for sustained operations far from home. Their surface ships are not nuclear and will need vast quantities of fuel to operate long distances. They probably need at least 20 of those to supply a fleet this big. It seems obvious that China intends to operate its fleet close to home as an offensive weapon against limited objectives, like Taiwan and other islands belonging to Vietnam, Japan, the Philippines, and Malaysia, none of who can stop China on their own or even together.

Thinking of this, Japan recently formed a brigade of 3,000 soldiers as a dedicated amphibious landing force (I’m not calling them “marines” because they were drawn from the Western Infantry Regiment in the Japan Self-Defense Forces, the Japanese Army. You know, the guys that shoot at Godzilla?)

China has gone from a strategy that imagined a “silent rise” to regional dominance to a more overt grab for control of the Pacific all the way to the Hawaiian Islands. Remember, China only has one ocean for its navy to patrol, while the U.S. Navy is in the Atlantic, Pacific, and the Indian Ocean, it’s also in the Mediterranean and in just about every other body of water big and deep enough for a frigate to churn a wake in.

So, we shrank our fleet, which changed the cost-benefit analysis for China. This has kicked off a naval arms race in Asia.

What does this have to do with whether Japan has a navy? Quite a lot. Japan recognizes that the U.S. doesn’t have the money (or perhaps the will) to crank back up to a 600-plus-ship navy with 500,000 sailors manning it, so Tokyo has decided that it must be prepared to look after itself.


This Is Just the Beginning

These two carrier conversions for Japan are a good start but it will take a lot of work to get them ready to carry the F-35B. Their exhaust tends to melt the decks of the ships they land on, so the whole flight will have to be replaced. They will also need larger fuel bunkers to store av-gas as well as armored and fireproofed magazines for the bombs and missiles the F-35 carries. That’s just for starters. The reason that so few countries operate aircraft carriers is because of all the stuff that goes with operating them. You need an airport for the planes when the carrier is in port with hangers and maintenance facilities, you need ports (more than one) that can protect and service the ships in dry dock. You also need the escorting vessels of the Carrier Strike Group to protect the carrier at sea. Typically, that means four-six destroyer or cruiser-sized vessels and one-two submarines.  This is a problem for Japan as well, which does not have any fast nuclear-powered submarines that can keep up with surface ships and scout ahead.

Perhaps they will ask for nuclear-powered subs next as the Australians have done.

And since I mentioned Australia, it should be pointed out that what Japan and Australia are doing is linked. If you don’t already know, Australia had a deal with France to build eight very expensive conventionally powered coast-patrol submarines. Then the U.S. and U.K. stepped in to offer the Australian Navy nuclear-powered submarines and they broke the deal with France, triggering a big diplomatic brouhaha.

This is also tied to China and the new naval arms race in Asia. While China had a coastal-patrol navy, Australia could rely on an informal “You stay in your waters and we’ll stay in ours” arrangement. As it became apparent that China was building a huge blue-ocean navy, however, Australia realized that it needed the nearly unlimited submerged endurance of nuclear submarines to protect itself from the 600-ship Chinese Communist navy. It is also likely that the U.S. told Australia and Japan that we don’t have the sheer numbers needed to defeat China on our own anymore.

So, there is the answer as to whether Japan has a navy. It sorta does and it is rapidly expanding its capabilities. This will probably be followed by an expanded Japanese army and air force at some point in the future. Japan has some 34 million military-aged males in its population and could build a huge army if it wanted to. An army with a rather long lineage of battles to draw upon. The bushido code of the samurai isn’t gone: it was applied to business and could be directed back towards the military arts pretty quickly.

As a student of history, Communist China in 2021 reminds me a lot of Imperial Japan in the 1930s. A rising industrial power that needed, fuel, rubber, ore, and other natural resources to expand its economy. Japan wanted to be an empire modeled on Great Brittain’s: import raw materials from colonial possessions, convert them into durable goods that could then be exported.  In Japan’s case that meant being the dominant industrial, commercial, and military power in the Pacific.

To do so, Japan needed a large army and navy and no competition in the region from the United States which shared Pacific dominance with Great Brittain. That’s why Japan attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Great Brittain looked like it would fall to the Nazis and the U.S. was ranked 17th militarily at the time. Right after Romania.