The Japanese navy’s first aircraft carrier in 75 years is almost ready to deploy. A photo that appeared on Twitter on Wednesday depicts the helicopter carrier Izumo undergoing modification for fixed-wing operations, apparently at the Japan Marine United shipyard in Yokohama.
The Chinese military has already considered how it might sink the Japanese carriers. Which is not to say it would succeed.
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The $28-million modifications underway at Yokohama will clear and reinforce Izumo’s deck in order to transform the vessel from a helicopter carrier into a light aircraft carrier capable of supporting the Japanese air force’s F-35B stealth jump jets.
Izumo’s sister vessel Kaga is slated to undergo the same modifications.
It’s unclear how many F-35s the two carriers—each 814 feet long and displacing 27,000 tons—might carry. Only a few, perhaps. The U.S. Navy’s own America-class assault ships, each displacing 45,000 tons, each can embark more than a dozen F-35Bs.
In a jab at the Japanese flattops’ limited capacity, Chinese analyst Fang Zheng questioned whether it was possible for “a crow to become a phoenix.”
The Washington, D.C. Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment translated comments from Fang and other Chinese experts in the think-tank’s recent survey of Chinese and Japanese naval power.
Izumo and Kaga don’t need to be like America—to say nothing of matching the capabilities of a U.S. Navy supercarrier with its nearly 70-plane air wing.
That’s because Izumo and Kaga, in Japanese doctrine, are flagships for anti-submarine groups whose main job is to enforce a blockade stretching from The Philippines to Japan in order to intercept Chinese submarines attempting to sneak past into the open ocean. If any subs do slip past, the Japanese vessels would pursue them.
Adding F-35Bs just makes the sub-hunting groups more powerful. The jump jets would intercept enemy warplanes and lob missiles at encroaching surface vessels. In a pinch, they also could support Japanese marines conducting island raids.
The carriers exist “to provide air defense at the outer perimeters of the escort flotilla” and “to seize command of the air at the theater level,” according to Yin He, another Chinese analyst.
Modest though their combat power might be, the Chinese military still has given a lot of thought to how it could sink the Japanese carriers.
In a major war, China’s DF-21D and DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missiles “would threaten Japan’s Izumo– and Hyuga-class helicopter carriers as much as they would endanger the U.S. Nimitz– and Ford-class carriers,” CSBA noted.
The think-tank quoted former Japanese fleet commander Vice Adm. Makoto Yamazaki. “If the ASBMs are simply programmed to track large ships, then the large 22DDH [the Izumo-class carrier] would be an attractive target second only to the U.S. aircraft carrier in the Japan-U.S. fleet conducting joint operations,” Yamazaki said.
Of course, the Japanese fleet is hardly defenseless. Japan deploys more destroyers equipped with the latest Aegis air-defense system than any other country except the United States—seven.
And Tokyo is Washington’s major partner in developing the SM-3 missile, which is compatible with Japanese destroyers and in theory could intercept incoming ballistic missiles.