Aircraft carriers emerged from the Second World War as the pinnacle of maritime prestige and power projection. However, unlike their predecessors, the battleship, aircraft carriers are in themselves relatively benign actors, relying heavily a their attached carrier air-wings and supporting escort fleets of cruisers, destroyers and submarines to screen them from hostile action.
In recent years, Indo-Pacific Asia has seen a growing number of traditional aircraft carriers and large deck, amphibious warfare ships being used to secure sea-lines-of-communication and maritime borders, while acting as potent power projection platforms through the use of amphibious operations and potent marine units.
Both the US and China continue to invest heavily in the potent power projection capabilities provided by aircraft carriers and large-deck amphibious warfare ships.
The growing Chinese carrier fleet in particular has prompted Japan, which has been prevented from operating aircraft carriers since the end of World War Two, to embark on a modernisation of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force's (JMSDF) fleet of large-deck amphibious warfare ships, the Izumo Class vessels.
Equally important is the capability of the aircraft deployed on such vessels. The F-35B, as with the larger 'A' and 'C' variants of the Joint Strike Fighter, represents a step-change in the power projection, air defence, close air support, sensor fusion and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities of carrier air-wings.
The short take-off, vertical landing (STOVL) 'B' variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter incorporates all of the key fifth-generation force multiplier capabilities of the conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) 'A' variant currently in operation with the Royal Australian Air Force, with the added operational and strategic flexibility as a result of the specialised design, enabling deployment on board large-deck amphibious warfare ships.
Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has reopened the debate around the return of fixed-wing naval aviation and strike capabilities for the RAN in response to the rising regional carrier capabilities.
"Starting this conversation is part of a broader discussion ahead of the 2020-21 white paper. We have recognised that a) we can't have same white paper as 2016 and b) we need to start seriously responding to the changing strategic reality, which will require a wholesale review of the force structure and force posture and a renewed focus on long-range strike and power projection, both of which a carrier or similar vessel can fill perfectly," Davis told Defence Connect.
The Japanese decision
The Japanese government has closely monitored the rise of the Chinese Navy and its growing force of aircraft carriers and territorial ambitions particularly in the South China Sea (SCS) and the Southern Ryukyu and Senkaku Islands. In response, the recent announcement that Japan would begin the refit of the Izumo Class vessels to reintroduce an integrated fixed-wing naval aviation capability to the JMSDF.
"The dozen or so aircraft likely to be embarked won’t be enough to constitute a traditional carrier air wing, but they will better support the defence of Japan’s vulnerable archipelagic regions in the Southern Ryukyu and maybe the Senkaku Islands," Davis commented.
Izumo and her sister ship Kaga are capable of supporting airwings of 28 aircraft, with capacity for about 10 'B' variant of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, with both 27,000-tonne vessels capable of supporting 400 marines. While in the early stages of design phase for the refit of the vessels, incorporating the F-35B into the two vessels enhances the maritime strike and broader deterrence options for Japan.
However, the Japanese decision is not without challenges, China's growing fleet of aircraft carriers, and the increasingly potent area-access/area denial (A2AD) capabilities provided by anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) systems like the DF-21 and DF-26 increase the risk to aircraft carriers and large-deck amphibious warfare ships.
"The Japanese capability will be limited, according to their post-war constitution which views aircraft carriers largely as offensive weapons platforms, so the Izumo and Kaga will be limited to extending the Japanese ability to project force and defend Japan's interests closer to China," Davis added.
The introduction of these A2AD systems requires that the new 'carriers' be supported by an enhanced layer of air and missile defence capable cruisers, destroyers and frigates, adding further cost and operational complexity challenges.
Additionally, concerns about the capability of the 'B' variant of the F-35, particularly concerning combat range, payload and maneuverability raises additional variables that can be overcome through the integration of key force multiplying platforms, namely tanker aircraft, either fixed wing or rotary and airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft and need to be accounted for as part of the broader integration equation Japan is currently embarking upon.
"The introduction of these capabilities is incredibly costly, not only with the refit of ships themselves, you then have to include the cost of the aircraft, the crews, maintenance, sustainment and support and escort vessels," Davis said.
Despite these challenges and protestations from Beijing, the Japanese government remains resolute in pursuing the capability, with Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya saying, "The Izumo Class destroyers will continue to serve as multi-function, multi-purpose destroyers. This mode of operation falls within the realm of an exclusively defence-oriented policy."
Modify the LHDs or a buy a new one?
The notion of Australia acquiring a third, F-35B dedicated Canberra Class LHD has been discussed at great length by both strategic policy analysts and politicians since the RAN acquired the vessels. Currently, the HMA Ships Canberra and Adelaide lack a number of structural and technical modifications that would enable the ships to safely and effectively operate the aircraft and any third vessel would need to incorporate the modifications from the keel up, in a similar manner to the Turkish Navy's TCG Anadolu (based on the Canberra/Juan Carlos Class vessels).
Davis identifies that Australia's acquisition of the 'A' variant also raises the possibility of purchasing up to 28 F-35Bs as part of Phase 2C of the broader AIR 6000 project.
"For Australia, this would be an expensive process. It will require a new ship, it will require the aircraft and conceivable modifications to the Air Force's KC-30As or the integration of a dedicated refuelling platform on board. It will also require an expansion of the escort and support vessels, this could mean five Hobart Class and 12 Hunter Class vessels, increased maintenance and sustainment, and it will mean growing the Navy to comfortably crew a larger surface fleet, all of which is costly," Davis explained.
However, the same challenges presented by the Japanese plan influences any potential for an Australian fixed-wing naval aviation capability, particularly the increased purchase of key escort vessels, namely the Hobart and Hunter Class and the Attack Class.
This is reinforced by Richard Brabin-Smith and Benjamin Schreer in a report for ASPI, where they focused on both the broader force structure challenges, combined with the operational limitations a small fleet of Australian F-35Bs operating from the Canberra class will provide.
"Despite their capacity to accommodate a number of STOVL aircraft, the LHDs are multi-purpose amphibious assault ships – not dedicated aircraft carriers. Because of their finite capacity, they can’t carry a full complement of helicopters, and amphibious troops with their vehicles and equipment, and simultaneously deploy a useful number of STOVL aircraft and additional support aircraft. Even in a ‘STOVL-only’ configuration, the LHD would face challenges in generating enough F-35B sorties continuously to protect itself and ships in company against a capable adversary," the report argues.
Despite this, Davis recognised the potent force projection and force multiplying capability the F-35B would afford Australia's naval commanders and the broader 'joint force' as it continues to develop and integrate key platforms like the E-7A Wedgetail, Hobart and Hunter Class vessels and broader Army long-range fire systems.
"The F-35s will however increase the target acquisition, networking, information sharing and survivability of the new major surface combatants. It will also add to the broader 'joint force' and brings additional value to Australia's participation in coalition operations in the Indo-Pacific region and will serve to address the long-range strike capability that Australia lost since the retirement of the F-111," he said.
However, it is important to recognise the limitations of the LHDs in the carrier capacity and role, and identify alternatives that would better suit the introduction of a dedicated aircraft carrier role.
In particular, close monitoring of the Japanese conversion of the Izumo and Kaga and, looking further abroad, the Italian integration of the F-35B into the specialised aircraft carrier Cavour, which has been designed to operate a larger number of F-35Bs than the Japanese vessels.
The introduction of a dedicated aircraft carrier benefits Australian industry as well, through increased procurement programs for support and escort vessels, larger F-35 supply chain contributions and larger sustainment and maintenance contracts, which are key to keeping the Navy 'battle ready and deployed'.