Japan’s decision to deploy the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the joint strike fighter, the F-35B, from its Izumo-class warships will transform them into what many predicted they would eventually become—small aircraft carriers.
The jets based on JS Izumo, and its sister ship the Kaga, will be constrained to short-range roles by Japan’s lack of an in-flight refueling option for the F-35B.
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 defense of Japan’s vulnerable archipelago regions in the Southern Ryukyu and maybe the Senkaku Islands.
However, Tokyo should be hesitant about deploying these ‘carriers’, even with destroyer escorts, into the teeth of China’s anti-access/area-denial capability.
That’s a problem, because China’s A2/AD perimeter already extends out as far as Guam, with the deployment of its DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missiles, submarine-launched anti-ship cruise missiles and long-range air power.
The key challenge for Japan—and the United States—is in confronting the dilemma of whether the aircraft carrier can survive in a contested environment.
It’s a question that’s also relevant to Australia, should it ever be tempted to deploy an F-35B on its Canberra-class landing helicopter docks.
The conceptual driver for the discussion is to equip the ADF so that it can best project power and support expeditionary forces in distant deployments beyond the range of land-based air cover.
HMA Ships Canberra and Adelaide are larger than Australia’s last aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne (which was sold to China and turned into a floating casino), and both have the ‘ski jump’ necessary for operating STOVL aircraft.
Our acquisition of the conventional F-35A raises the possibility of getting up to 28 F-35B’s to operate off the LHD’s as part of phase 2C of the AIR 6000 project.
The F-35B would give us some clear operational advantages. A small force of the jets based on the LHDs could provide a limited level of air support for expeditionary joint task forces, and take on roles including fleet air defense, close air support for ground forces, and penetrative intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
The F-35B could supercharge defensive networks like the ‘cooperative engagement capability’ on our Hobart-class destroyers and Hunter-class future frigates, contributing to their survival and boosting their combat effectiveness.
But using the F-35B would also present us with some real challenges. It seems unlikely that the Canberra and Adelaide would be converted to operate the jets because of the significant work and money involved and the associated reduction in the ships’ amphibious potential.
Brabin-Smith and Schreer estimated in 2014 that it would cost $500 million to convert one LHD, including adapting the deck to handle the heat generated by the F-35B’s engine.
At most, a single LHD could carry between 12 and 16 jets, and not all aircraft would be airborne all the time.
The design compromises required for STOVL capability also mean that the ‘B’ is the least capable variant of the F-35 in terms of speed, range and weapons payload—especially in full stealth mode where it is most useful.
It’s clear that any LHD carrying F-35Bs would have to be defended by surface ships. In a coalition task force, Australian and allied naval forces could protect the LHD, but in some scenarios we might need to deploy independently or lead a regional coalition.
That would place greater demand on our naval assets to form a task force supporting the LHD, though the navy’s three Hobart-class destroyers and nine Hunter-class future frigates should provide that capability.
In considering the F-35B, Australia, like Japan and the USA, must reckon with a more dangerous strategic environment and the reality that adversary capability is progressing swiftly.
We have arrived back at the more fundamental question for Western carrier-equipped navies confronting Chinese and Russian A2/AD: can the aircraft carrier survive?
National Interest / ABC Flash Point news 2020.