Japanese Aircraft Carriers – After 76 Years, Japan Has Aircraft Carriers Again

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Tyler Harmon

  • A United States Marine Corps F-35B joint fighter landed on the Japanese aircraft carrier last month Izumo.
  • The event marked 76 years since the last time Japan operated an aircraft carrier.
  • Japan will operate at least two carriers by 2030, all with US assistance.

    The United States Marine Corps and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force made history last month with an epic flight that revived Japan’s transport aviation program.

    The flight involving the Japanese aircraft carrier Izumo and the American F-35B fighter jets marked the first time that Japan had operated an aircraft carrier since 1945. Japan was one of the first powers in pioneering naval aviation, but its involvement in World War II resulted in the destruction of almost all of its fleet combat force, especially the carriers.

    The flight took place on October 3 in the Pacific Ocean. Two F-35B Joint Strike Fighters operating from Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni took off from mainland Japan, refueled in flight, then landed on the JS ship Izumo. The F-35Bs landed vertically on the Izumo flight deck and then made a rolling takeoff. MSDF shared the video below on Twitter:

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    By December 1941, Japan was harnessing the largest and best trained transport force in the world. Japan relied heavily on its navy for power projection and took a natural liking to the concept of operating airplanes from ships. The Imperial Japanese Navy built the world’s first specially designed aircraft carrier, Hosho, in 1922. (Other countries, including the United States, built the first aircraft carriers using the hulls of other types of ships.)

    Four years later, Japan had no proper aircraft carriers, their flat-roofed remnants rendered inoperative or sunk by the combined might of Allied forces. After the war, Japan’s new democratic, pacifist-minded government banned aircraft carriers as tools of offensive warfare. The United States Navy, which had decisively built the Imperial Japanese Navy during the war, became the dominant transport power in the postwar years.

    190619 n pj626 0004 south china sea june 19, 2019 us navy forward deployed aircraft carrier uss ronald reagan cvn 76 sails alongside japan maritime self-defense force helicopter destroyer js izumo ddh 183 While conducting operations in the south china sea ronald reagan, the flagship of carrier strike group 5, provides a combat-ready force that protects and defends the collective maritime interests of its allies and partners in the indo-pacific region us navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kaila Peters
    USS Ronald reagan smokes alongside JS Izumo in the South China Sea, June 2019. At the time the photo was taken, it showed an aircraft carrier and a helicopter destroyer. Today, few would say it shows two aircraft carriers.

    US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kaila Peters

    The rise of the Chinese navy, however, led Japan to rethink its ban on aircraft carriers. The successor to the Imperial Navy, the Maritime Self-Defense Forces, built two large warships in the early 2010s. Izumo and his sister ship Kaga were technically classified as “helicopter destroyers” but featured full-length flight decks, an island to oversee flight operations, and elevators capable of transporting an F-35B from the hangar to the flight deck. In 2018, Tokyo approved plans to convert both ships to an aircraft carrier configuration, which involved making the flight deck heat-proof and adding support systems for the F-35Bs.

    Japan has ordered 42 F-35Bs from the United States, but the planes have not arrived and the Japanese F-35 pilots are not trained in short take-off and vertical landing operations. The Marine Corps, however, operates two squadrons of F-35Bs at Marine Corps Air Base in Iwakuni on mainland Japan, just south of Hiroshima. After some discussions, Washington and Tokyo agreed on the exercise. Both countries are getting something out of it: U.S. Marines have proven they can operate from foreign aircraft carriers, while Izumo’s crew have been able to practice carrier operations in a way they could not have done otherwise for at least a year.

    Is this causing China to reconsider its military approach or not? Only time will tell. In the meantime, the 76-year-old spell has been broken and the genius of the Japanese aircraft carrier has officially been rolled out of its bottle.


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