Harold Hutchison / August 27, 2019

Japan’s Naval Counterweight to China

Building up Japan’s navy gives the U.S. an ally that can project power in the region.

With all the discussion of the G7 economic summit, there was other news that didn’t receive much attention but has to be causing some heartburn in Beijing. No, not the trade deal, but a United States Naval Institute report that Japan is willing to let the United States Marines operate F-35B Lightnings off Japan’s four “helicopter destroyers.”

Japan has four such vessels, two of which are the 13,500-ton Hyuga-class helicopter destroyers Hyuga and Ise, and two 19,500-ton Izumo-class vessels, Izumo and Kaga. While the reports center on the latter two vessels, the former two can’t be discounted for F-35B operations. It should be noted that vertical/short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) aircraft have operated off ships like the Italian Navy’s 10,100-ton Giuseppe Garibadi that saw combat service in 2002 during the Global War on Terrorism and in the 2011 Libyan intervention.

The Marines operating F-35Bs off these ships could be a preparation for Japan to bring back a fixed-wing carrier arm. Japan’s order of 100 F-35s reportedly includes some of the F-35Bs in the mix. While not as capable as a United States Navy nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, this can still put some real hurt on the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

Now, let’s be honest, Japan’s “helicopter destroyers” are really light aircraft carriers and were intended to be from the start. History has seen Japan play fast and loose with arms-control treaties in the past (its heavy cruisers flaunted the restrictions of the London Naval Treaty), so is it no surprise that euphemisms would be employed to allow the use of aircraft carriers.

What does this mean for America? It gives the United States an ally that can legitimately project power in the region. Given that the United States Navy is desperately short on hulls in the water, this is a good thing — two light carriers can, for instance, keep China off balance in the South China Sea. That’s just the beginning.

Japan is also acquiring the V-22 Osprey — the game-changing tiltrotor that has given the Marine Corps new advantages in combat and non-combat operations. Those will also be able to operate off these ships, as Marine Corps Ospreys already have. Japan has a trio of Osumi-class amphibious ships, which look like carriers but have no hangars; instead, flat decks provide landing platforms for helicopters — and helicopters used on naval ships can handle sea water for a bit.

Japan’s military growth is mostly very good news for the United States. The only hiccup is that neighbors of Japan, particularly South Korea, have been nervous about that, given what happened in World War II. South Korea has made a similar growth as a military power, and the chance that these American allies could have drama akin to that of Greece and Turkey from past decade is a little greater than America would like.

The Beijing regime already had to worry about the way Hong Kong has trapped Chinese President Xi Jinping in a tough spot, and President Donald Trump taking on China’s unfair trade practices with the aid of a militarily stronger Japan doesn’t make things easier for the red commies. So, despite the historic concerns with South Korea, the rise of Japan’s capabilities as a better-armed Asian partner of the United States is all-in-all a good thing.

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