Japan Aircraft Carrier Unlikely, Even With F-35Bs
By WENDELL MINNICK TAIPEI — Japan specialists and insiders are discounting rumors that Japan may buy F-35B Lightning II aircraft and outfitting its new helicopter-destroyers with ski jumps, thus turning the 13,000-ton Hyuga vessel into a light aircraft carrier.
With news the F-22 Raptor will be unavailable for export to Japan, many are now looking closely at the F-35B, a short-takeoff and vertical-landing (STOVL) aircraft, to fill Japan’s F-X requirement.
Speculation has been widespread the DDH 181 Hyuga could accommodate STOVL aircraft. Launched last August at the IHI Marine United shipyard in Yokohama, it is viewed by many as Japan’s first aircraft carrier since World War II. The Hyuga is similar in design to a carrier or amphibious warfare ship, including a flush landing deck and starboard island structure.
But the Japanese Maritime SelfDefense Force (JMSDF) classifies the vessel as a “helicopter destroyer” dedicated to anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and humanitarian/logistic support missions. Four are planned to replace the two Haruna-class and two Shiraneclass DDHs in the ASW role.
Despite the vessel’s unique capabilities and its clear imitation of a light aircraft carrier, it lacks the space and durability to handle fixed-wing aircraft.
“I understand that the new helicopter-destroyer’s deck is too thin to hold the pressure of [an] F-35 landing,” said Masashi Nishihara, president of the Tokyo-based Research Institute for Peace and Security. He said the deck could be reinforced, but there is little discussion about the idea among military officials. Besides deck strength, other problems include the size of internal lifts to hangars and hangar space.
Other problems facing a Japanese aircraft carrier are constitutional restrictions and clear public disapproval. Since 1988, Japan has interpreted its constitution as allowing the possession of “defensive” light carriers, and the Hyuga falls under that description, said Christopher Hughes, author of the book, “Japan’s Re-emergence as a ‘Normal’ Military Power.” However, it would be an extreme move to acquire F-35s. Hughes said that “would really be a step too far and appear too much right now as being ‘offensive’ in nature and raise serious questions in Japan and amongst its neighbors.” Japan also turned down invitations to participate in the F-35 international partnership program, led by Lockheed Martin. The only Asian country to participate is Singapore, which joined the program’s System Design and Development Phase as a Security Cooperation Participant in 2003.
“Japanese policy-makers feel that all the development work is done [or] allocated on this aircraft, and there is not much that Japan can gain technologically,” said Hughes. “Hence, there is no great techno-military-industrial complex interest in the F-35 right now.” Hughes said a better choice would be the Eurofighter Typhoon. Japan’s defense schedule also raises a problem. The selection of Japan’s next mainstay fighter, the F-X, is scheduled by the end of the current 2005-2009 defense timeline. “The MoD could delay the FX fighter selection until the next defense program time frame , but it cannot wait too long,” said Sumihiko Kawamura, deputy director of The Okazaki Institute, Tokyo.
“The F-35B option is highly likely to be nixed from the list of alternative aircraft,” because “the IOC [initial operational capability] of the F-35B is scheduled in 2014, and its development program is behind the MoD’s time frame.” Timing is only part of the problem. The MoD and Japanese Air Self-Defense Force are facing major budget constraints that make the costly F-22 and F-35B appear unrealistic.
Yoichiro Sato of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu, said the military is not serious about the F-22 and has made only a “half-hearted” request for it despite Tokyo’s loud complaints of the U.S. congressional ban on their export.
“A quick shift to F-35B is unlikely. A more likely outcome is reexamination of the entire procurement plan, including an option to stretch the use of the current F15s,” Sato said.
Other options include the Typhoon, the Dassault Rafale, the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the F-15E. Japan’s desire for a truly fifth-generation fighter may have to wait until the next defense program in 2010-14, if ever.