The maiden test takeoff and landing U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II jets from the Japanese helicopter carrier JS Izumo marks a big leap forward, not only for the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF), but also for Japan as a whole.
F-35Bs from the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, in Yamaguchi Prefecture, participated in these practice runs.
This was the short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) version of the F-35. However, even though the F35Bs have landed on the Izumo, other versions of the F-35 require more traditional landing conditions and will not be able to do the same.
The other versions of the F35 lineup include the conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) F-35A and the carrier-based (CV/CATOBAR) F-35C. At the same time, this recent development will make Japan one of the very few countries which have the capability to operate and build carriers.
Factors Behind the Decision
There are a host of factors behind this decision.
First, of course is the rise of China. The growing belligerence exhibited by China can be seen in its repeated violations of Taiwan’s airspace in the months and days leading up to Taiwan’s October 10 National Day.
In terms of naval strength by numbers, China already has the biggest maritime military in the world, overtaking the U.S. Navy. It also has two aircraft carriers and is working on a third. One of them, the Liaoning, has already sailed through the Miyako Strait along with other support vessels, presenting a great challenge.
Second, given the fact that Japan is a treaty ally of the U.S., it will increase the reach of the U.S.-Japan alliance.
The U.S. has been mired in a series of domestic difficulties for some time now, especially since the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has not improved under the Biden administration.
One consequence has been Japan’s acknowledgement that it must shoulder more responsibilities on the security front. Tokyo has already ordered 42 F-35B from the U.S.
Third, availability of the Izumo as a carrier will help Japan to project its power over a bigger area and will send a message to countries like North Korea, which have been at their belligerent best when it comes to Japan.
This also means that Japan’s foreign policy priorities have not changed, although there has been a change in the leadership from Prime Minister Suga to Prime Minister Kishida.
In addition, it needs to be reiterated here that Japan has a huge coastline, and thereby an extended EEZ.
Free and Open Indo-Pacific
Japan already has a Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, which was enunciated for the first time under the then PM Shinzo Abe. In keeping with the strategy, the JMSDF has been conducting naval exercises with a host of countries in the region, and the naval realm has always been Japan’s area of strength. The operation of the F35Bs from the JS Izumo is a part of this vision.
The Americans have also acquiesced to this operation, which is a major development in the post-Second World War era.
Japan made many changes to the JS Izumo, including adding heat-resistant coating and new markings. Izumo’s sister ship, the JS Kaga, is also likely to get similar upgrades in the future.
What it Means for the Region
Japan has already been offering military hardware to countries like Vietnam and Philippines in Southeast Asia, a move that has ruffled feathers in China.
The influential Chinese tabloid Global Times noted that, “since the initial commissioning of the Izumo in 2015, it has been no secret that Japan, particularly the country’s militarist forces, was eyeing to turn it into a light aircraft carrier.”
It also means that Japan is ready to play a bigger role in regional arrangements like the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), which includes the U.S., India and Australia. Along with the U.S. and India, Japan is also a part of the Malabar naval exercises. Moreover, the JMSDF now has a naval base in Djibouti, which is the first of its kind in the post- WWII era.
At the same time, Japan will also have to be careful in how it addresses international opinion in the aftermath of this development. And the new PM, Fumio Kishida, will have a lot on his hands, now that Lower House elections of the Diet have been called for later this month.
Article 9 of Japan’s Post-Second World War Constitution does not allow the country to possess offensive capabilities, although that seems to be slightly reinterpreted due to a range of practical factors.
With respect to the F35B’s operating on the JS Izumo, Japan’s Post-War Constitution does not specifically ban any particular kind of weapon platforms. The Japanese Diet also made changes to Japanese law in September 2015, which allows Japanese troops to come to the aid of the U.S. and other allies, even though Japan may not be directly under attack.
At a time when some other European nations like Britain and France have shown that they too remain relevant in the region, the developments in Japan come not a day too soon. This also means that international efforts to pressure China to adhere to a rules-based order are gaining traction.
The fact that Japan has taken this giant leap forward just goes to show that it is prepared to take hard decisions at a critical time in its history. For Japan to operate fixed-wing aircraft from the JS Izumo is like crossing the proverbial Rubicon.
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Author: Dr. Rupakjyoti Borah
Dr Rupakjyoti Borah is a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, Tokyo. The views expressed here are personal. Twitter @rupakj