Japan’s unprecedented wave of military modernisation is at a critical juncture as the first of the Izumo Class ‘helicopter carriers’ marks a critical milestone in its transformation into the nation’s first true aircraft carrier since the Second World War, adding further fuel to the simmering regional arms race.
Japan has closely followed the modernisation of the Chinese armed forces and raised concerns about the nation’s defence capabilities, this has seen growing concerns about missile defence, rapid response power projection forces and strategic deterrence capabilities.
Accordingly, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo's government has responded with a period of unprecedented defence budgets as the pre-war power seeks to shake off the chains of the pacifist constitution enforced upon it by the US, UK, Australia and other allies following the end of the war in the Pacific.
Growing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and modernisation efforts resulting in the fielding of key power projection capabilities, including aircraft carriers and supporting strike groups, fifth-generation combat aircraft, modernised land forces, area-access denial and strategic nuclear forces, combined with growing political and financial influence throughout the region, is serving to shake Japan's confidence.
Accordingly, Prime Minister Abe has repeatedly earmarked increased funding for the nation's defence budget, expanding the capabilities of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) with plans to repeal the post-Second World War constitutional limitations and reinstate a power projection focused force structure and doctrine to be supported by Japan's industrial capability to modernise and equip itself in the face of growing regional instability and tensions.
As key effectors for the renewed Japanese defence capability, each of the branches of the JSDF have integrated and specialised roles to play in the shifting focus of the Japanese government and its ambitions in the region – in particular the repeal of Article 9 will see both forces shift from a purely 'defensive' focused force towards a nation with an indigenous power projection capability.
While the shadow of doubt has been cast over the largely defensive, strategic deterrence focused Aegis ashore system in favour of developing what can be best described as "pre-emptive strike capabilities against enemy rocket launchers as a less-costly alternative to the Aegis Ashore missile shield".
As part of the plans under consideration, the Japanese government is investigating a number of potential options to provide strategic security and comprehensive missile defence to the otherwise exposed island nation – these include costly expansions of the existing Aegis-equipped destroyer fleet and developing offshore structures to accommodate Aegis systems offshore.
However, by far the most interesting development is the continuation and expansion of the decision by the Japanese government in 2017 to pursue and field long-range cruise missiles, which could be deployed on Japan's fighter aircraft force.
This is particularly relevant as adversaries offensive missile systems become increasingly capable and hard to intercept, particularly as hypersonics continue to proliferate and become increasingly capable, something the Japanese government has anticipated and uses as a justification for withdrawing from the Aegis ashore program.
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Nevertheless, one of the emerging capabilities that the Japanese government is focusing on is the modernisation of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force's (JMSDF) Izumo Class 'helicopter carriers' to be equipped with the fifth-generation F-35B short take-off, vertical landing (STOVL) Joint Strike Fighters.
A return of Japanese carrier capabilities
Japan's history of offensive operations during World War II has prevented the JMSDF from operating conventional, catapult assisted launching aircraft carriers or short take-off, vertical landing large deck, amphibious warfare ships as both are considered to be offensive weapons systems – capable of supporting power projection doctrines and 'hard power' policies.
As part of PM Abe's commitment toward shifting the paradigm following continued Chinese naval build up – particularly the growing capabilities of China's aircraft carrier and amphibious warfare ship fleets – Japan has initiated a range of modernisation and structural refits for the Izumo Class vessels to develop small aircraft carriers capable of supporting airwings of 28 rotary-wing aircraft, with capacity for approximately 10 'B' variants of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, with both 27,000-tonne vessels capable of supporting 400 marines.
Following approval in December 2018 for the conversion of the Izumo Class into aircraft carriers, imagery has emerged of the JNS Izumo as it undergoes the major structural modification and conversation to enable the vessels to host the F-35 and V-22 Osprey's planned to support the burgeoning anti-submarine, amphibious and expeditionary capabilities Japan currently has in development.
The US$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 F-35B STOVL fighter jets.
It is envisaged that the modernised and converted Izumo Class will provide tactical and strategic mobility for the JSDF and enable them to support the rapid response deployment of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force's (JGSDF) 'Amphibious Rapid Deployment' brigade.
This specially developed amphibious unit is similar to US Marine Expeditionary Units designed to defend Japanese interests in the South China Sea, namely the Senkaku Islands, which have served as a flash point between China and Japan.
Developing complementary force structures
The Australia-Japan relationship is the nation's closest and most mature in Asia and is underpinned by the strategic, economic, political and legal interests of both countries. The countries work closely in strategic alliance with the US, and lead in critical regional partnerships with countries such as India and the Republic of Korea.
Australia and Japan regularly participate in joint defence exercises and frequently consult on regional security issues, such as the nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches undertaken by North Korea.
The Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation (JDSC) signed in 2007 provides a foundation for wide-ranging co-operation on security issues for both countries, including law enforcement, border security, counter terrorism, disarmament and counter-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
The JDSC also established the regular 2+2 talks between the respective foreign and defence ministers.
Like Australia, Japan is dependent upon unrestricted access to critical sea lines-of-communication (SLOC), which require robust naval and air power capabilities – these developments and the strategic reorientation provides avenues for the two nations to develop similar, complementary force structures to ensure unhindered access to Indo-Pacific Asia's SLOC.