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What Can Japan Do With Moderately Capable Aircraft Carriers?




I was assigned to a United States Navy destroyer homeported in Yokosuka, Japan, in 1966. It was in the midst of the Cold War.


Many ships of the Soviet Pacific Fleet carried nuclear weapons and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics established a fleet with 100 submarines that could damage Japan’s sea lanes in the Pacific.


The Maritime Self-Defense Force decided to purchase several Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopters or DASH. My destroyer was tasked with helping the MSDF create a system so that its destroyers with a displacement of less than 2,000 tons could effectively operate DASH.




Was MSDF Vessel Carrying DASH An Aircraft Carrier?


The procurement of several DASH increased the capabilities of MSDF destroyers.


At the time the Japan Socialist Party and the Japanese Communist Party maintained that these destroyers, along with all other weapon systems, violated Article 9 of the Constitution.



The Japanese government maintained that the MSDF destroyers carrying DASH were within the range of the minimum required self-defense and, therefore, legitimate.


However, MSDF destroyers were called “escort ships,” despite being identical in appearance to naval destroyers of the U.S. and other foreign countries and possessing similar capabilities.


The Japanese government insisted that the MSDF destroyers carrying DASH did not even satisfy the minimum requirements needed for self-defense. That was correct. In fact, their capabilities were significantly below the level needed to protect Japan’s sea lanes from blockage by Soviet Pacific Fleet submarines.




Does Japan Have Minimum Defense Capability?


The MSDF now possesses two 30,000-ton class ships with flat flight decks that give them the appearance of aircraft carriers. Currently the ships can deploy 10 helicopters each.


The Defense Ministry plans to modify the ships so that they can carry and operate eight F-35B stealth fighters each. This would improve the capability of the two Izumo-class escort ships.


However, the Chinese navy, which threatens Japan’s Pacific sea lanes and territories in the East China Sea, has bigger and more capable aircraft carriers. Beijing has even announced the intention to possess even far bigger and multi-functional ships.



Taking this into account, even if Japan modifies the Izumo-class vessels into ships that can operate modern stealth fighters, the capabilities of Izumo and its sister ship would still be below the minimum level for self-defense.


Once again, the Izumo-class vessels, even after such modification, will not be called “destroyers” but rather “helicopter carrier escort ships.” The ships will not always carry and operate F-35Bs. The ships should not be classified as “attack aircraft carriers,” according to the defense minister.


Japan’s small-size escort ships in the 1960s lacked capabilities to defend the country against attacks by the Soviet Pacific Fleet’s submarines (the escort ships were not always able to attack). The Izumo-class escort ships, too, are only able to protect Japan’s territories and respond to attacks against Japan’s sea lanes by the Chinese navy at the minimum level.


What should be called into question now is not whether Japan has excessive defense capability but whether it is all right to possess the minimum defense capability.



Improved capability strengthens Japanese deterrence. However, in order to possess a sufficient capacity for defense against a potential serious attack by China, Japan needs to continue to maintain its partnership with the U.S. Navy.



Getting to the Minimum Capability for Self-Defense


Even during the 1960s, military experts and foreign navies regarded the MSDF “escort ships” as destroyers. Today they realize that the Izumo-class ships are, to be accurate, helicopter carriers. Deploying F-35B fighters on the ships will increase Japan’s defense capability but not lead to its violation of the Constitution.



I understand very well that Japan is careful not to call its ships “destroyers” or “[attack aircraft carriers” to avoid being regarded as provocative. However, I think there is no reason for Japan to worry about possessing very capable MSDF ships or to increase its deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region.



Self-Defense Requires Some Element of Power Projection


Japan’s possession of highly capable ships is welcomed and is given high marks by nations friendly to Japan, beginning with the U.S. and also Southeast Asian countries, Australia, and India.


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe once hoped to change the name of the SDF to something more precise, for example, “self-defense army.” Some people criticized the Prime Minister’s suggestion as unnecessarily provocative. But I think such a name would express Japan’s resolution to possess a self-defense capability and be regarded as a reliable defense partner.



Rather, what is provocative is placing excessive restrictions on the SDF and not improving its capability to an adequate level for defense.


Enemies are deterred by power, but encouraged to misbehave by weakness.


Modifying the Izumo-class vessels into ships capable of carrying F-35B fighters would not be illegal or represent the possession of the capability for aggression. But it would increase Japan’s deterrence.



In my opinion, calling the Izumo-class ships “helicopter carriers” today and calling them “aircraft carriers” (for legitimate and capable self-defense) after the modification would better express Japan’s intention to build a reliable national defense capability.



(Click here to read the article as originally published in Japanese.)



Author: Dr. James E. Auer




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