Japan will have its pick of names for the new aircraft carrier it has announced it will build. The names of previous carriers like, Soryu, Hiryu, Akagi, Kaga, Shokaku, Zuikaku, and the Shimano all come to mind. The Shimano, which was converted from an unfinished Yamato class battleship was the largest aircraft carrier ever built until the US launched the nuclear-powered Enterprise in the 1960s.
Communist China’s rapid expansion of its navy has sparked a naval arms race in the Pacific with the US asking its allies in the Pacific to expand their naval capabilities with regard to ships, planes and missiles in order to deter aggression from China in perhaps the next ten years. Japan is taking steps to do so while holding well short of calling Communist China a direct threat to its national security.
At least so far. And this may be a problem later on.
Beyond absorbing Taiwan into communist China, Beijing has set its sights on being the hegemon of the Pacific east to the Hawaiian Islands, north to Alaska, and South to New Guinea.
In a recent speech by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on December 16th, Japan put itself behind three initiatives as its guiding defense principles. The first is the Free and Open Indo-Pacific FOIP which it began in 2016. It mirrors the US policy encompassing Free Trade on the High Seas. It has three components, first is the establishment and enforcement of the rule of law(international), including freedom of navigation and free trade. Second is the pursuit of economic prosperity and third is a commitment to peace and security in the regions of the Pacific and Indian Ocean.
Japan has also revised its National Defense Strategy in light of the recent invasion of Ukraine. The international lesson of the Russian invasion for US allies is that they cannot expect America to wage a war in defense of a country not prepared or willing to defend itself first. It should be recalled that when the invasion occurred, the US expected Ukraine’s defense to collapse in a week and President Biden’s first offer of assistance was to evacuate Ukrainian President Zelensky and his family from the country. Zelensky famously replied that he did not need a ride, he needed weapons. Ukraine’s population then put up a dogged and heroic defense and stopped Russia’s five routes of advance in its tracks. This was enough to inspire NATO and other countries to supply Ukraine with further(if limited) weapons for its defense. Ukraine also bought itself the time to do so.
It should also be noted that Russia only attacked at all because it did not believe(With some good reason) that Ukraine lacked a military of sufficient size to deter aggression.
In Japan’s National Defense Strategy document a single new phrase stands out in acknowledgment of this new reality, “In today’s circumstance, no country can now protect its own security alone.”
It also recognizes that the best policy is not to appear helpless in the face of aggression but to be able to deter it with capable and ready personnel and weapons. For Japan, the “challenges” it faces are coming from China, North Korea and Russia. It marks the continued build-up of the Chinese Communist ground, sea, air, and missile forces and the missile threat posed by North Korea as it pursues the miniaturization of a nuclear weapon in the coming years.
Japan Faces Threats it Refuses to call “Threats”
This means Japan faces not one, but three nuclear-armed belligerents, while Japan itself has no nuclear weapons to deter them, relying instead on the US to deter and defend the home islands. Of course, Japan is a series of islands that makes invasion difficult by a hostile nation. Japan counted on this advantage for centuries. They also counted on it in WWII, believing they could make a US landing on the home islands so expensive in terms of casualties that they could make a negotiated peace with the US. Then we dropped two atomic bombs on them and Japan realized there was no need for the allies to land on their shores, they could be annihilated from the air.
They understand that now too, with North Korea lobbing missiles over Japan and China using Japan’s exclusive economic zones in the Sea of Japan as splash-down points for their own missiles.
Japan is also wholly dependent on maritime trade to feed its population and power its economy. Japan imports 60% of its food and 90% of its energy needs. This vulnerability was also exploited by the US in WWII. US submarines sank 1300 Japanese merchant ships representing 5.4 million tons of displacement. By the war’s end, US subs had a very hard time finding any targets to sink and were surfacing to shoot up fishing boats. When Japan finally surrendered, its population was on the verge of mass starvation.
After WWII, Japan’s constitution swore off the use of offensive weaponry and built a military equipped purely for self-defense on the promise that the US would come to their aid if attacked by Russia. As a result, Japan spent a paltry 1% of its Gross Domestic Product on defense with the supplement of some 24 US bases, installations, activities, and camps on Okinawa and in the home islands run by all branches of the US Armed Forces.
Japan’s new strategy is to acquire weapons of deterrence and counter strike as well and it has announced that it will double its defense budget to 2% of GDP which would bring it into alignment with the defense spending of NATO countries. Where Japan’s defensive posture is most deficient is in a counter-strike capability with conventional missiles. They have anti-missile systems but no ability to strike back against an enemy. A substantial part of this budget increase will be spent on conventionally armed cruise missiles able to strike back. These will most likely be Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles(TLAMs).
One may wonder what good are conventional land attack missiles against nuclear-armed aggressors like China or North Korea. The TLAM can carry nuclear warheads as well. If Japan was attacked with a nuclear weapon, the United States could provide Japan with nuclear warheads to strike back within a matter of days. Both China and Russia know this.
Will Japan build a new Mobile Strike Force?
As for that aircraft carrier Japan wants to build. Japan is a wealthy country with a robust heavy shipbuilding industry so it has the money and the organic ability to build large aircraft carriers. It is also a maritime nation with a large population of seafaring people to man its ships. Japan’s navy is a considerable fighting force with more than 150 ships and more than 50,000 personnel. It operates two light carriers, two helicopter carriers, 22 submarines, and 46 destroyers and frigates among other vessels.
Japan would probably opt for a conventionally powered carrier in the range of 40-60,000 tons of displacement and operate the F-35b variant of the Lightning for its vertical take-off and landing capabilities. Since this carrier(or carriers) would have the primary mission of forming a mobile strike force to fight the Chinese, Russian or North Korean navies close to its home waters it does not need to build huge nuclear-powered, multi-mission carriers like the US Nimitz or Ford-class carriers which are capable of operating anywhere in the world for months at a time.
Believe it or not, small deck carriers have a higher sortie rate than large carriers, because with VTOL aircraft you can land several on the deck at once to rearm, refuel and go on another mission within 15-20 minutes. Operating 200-300 miles away from Japan, this carrier would also have the ability to refuel F-35Bs sent from land bases en route to targets further out to sea. Unlike China which has had to invent its carrier operating procedures on its own, Japan has the benefit of a close relationship with carrier builders like the US and Great Brittain. It is even possible that Japan could receive design assistance from both these countries in creating these medium-sized carriers for their own navy.
Japan would probably want to build four of these carriers eventually, with two at sea and two in port for refitting at any given time. She would also have to build several fast oilers to supply them with fuel for her ships and planes. Japan has plenty of large naval bases like Sasebo and Yokuska to home port them and an abundance of airbases for its naval aircraft when the carriers are in port.
With 46 frigates and destroyers to form an escort group around the two carriers operating as a strike force, Japan’s navy could put to sea with a powerful long-range offensive strike capability of 60-80 aircraft that would rival China and Russia in the Sea of Japan and the South China Sea.
China’s growing naval capabilities in the Pacific have sparked an arms race that now includes Japan and to a lesser extent, Australia as well as it now seeks nuclear-powered attack submarines with the help of the US and UK in increasing the size of its naval presence.
The Way of the Dragon
The fatal flaw in Japan’s turn away from a purely defensive military to one capable of power projection and counterstrike is its reluctance to treat China as a “threat,” preferring to use the term “strategic challenge” instead. Japan’s policy towards China seeks to decouple its economic policy from its defense policy. Even as it rightly views China as a country that seeks to make unilateral changes to the security status quo in the Indo-Pacific as a strategic threat to rule of law, prosperity and peace, and stability, it still seeks economic engagement in the hope that trade will restrain China from armed aggression.
This was also the mistake Western Europe made with Russia. Countries like Germany decoupled its trade policies and foreign policy with Russia, which allowed it to invade and partially dismember Ukraine in 2014, while it tightened its stranglehold over Europe’s energy supply at the same time.
What Japan seems to miss in this policy is that trade with China funds its military expansion which emboldens China to move more aggressively in the Pacific to expand its own trade at the expense of its neighbors.
Japan, along with the US will need to stop feeding the Chinese dragon in the forlorn hope that its teeth will fall out and its ability to breathe fire will be lost with a full belly. Dragons just don’t work that way.