Japan on Dec. 18, 2018, announced what everyone had long suspected: Its Izumo-class “helicopter carriers” would host F-35B short-takeoff, vertical-launch stealth jets, and the platform will be transformed into a weapon Tokyo hasn’t wielded since 1945.
Japan announced on Dec. 18, 2018, that it would change its defense guidelines and buy 105 more F-35A stealth jets, as well as roughly 40 F-35Bs that can take off vertically from its flat-decked Izumo ships.
Japan said it would retrofit its two Izumo carriers to handle the extreme heat and pressure of the F-35B’s vertical launches from the decks in a pivot from its post-World War II pacifist stance, citing rising threats from China, Russia, and North Korea.
Japan has long sought a long-range, fifth-generation aircraft to defend its far-flung island claims as Russia and China routinely test its borders with fighter jets buzzing its borders, but the US hasn’t yet offered it anything that can do the job.
F-35B prepares for a vertical landing.
(Photo by Lance Cpl. Dana Beesley)
The F-22, the US’ first fifth-generation fighter, came across as an ideal solution for Japan’s defense needs, but the US refused to sell, saying the cutting-edge technology was too critical to share.
The F-35, of which Japan wants to become the world’s second-largest buyer, has much of the F-22’s stealth and avionics prowess, but has much shorter range.
But according to Justin Bronk, an aerial-combat expert at the Royal United Services Institute, putting F-35s on a carrier at sea that can close range to island flash points, Japan may have finally solved its problem.
“This is about being able to put capable air power near some of their island possessions, especially given that there’s a lot of Chinese capability being specifically developed to hit forward air bases,” Bronk told Business Insider, referencing China’s growing rocket force.
“Having something mobile that’s harder to hit that can deploy fifth-generation air power makes a lot of military sense,” Bronk said of the carriers.
The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter destroyer JS Izumo.
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kaila V. Peters)
Not just island defense, but a navy killer
Japan’s Izumo carriers occupy the traditional role of launching an amphibious attack to take or retake an island with while providing air power overhead, but the F-35s bring something that attack helicopters just can’t do.
“Basically, any naval task group worth the name is, from an airman’s perspective, a formidable mobile air defense network,” Bronk said. China’s navy ships have “powerful radars, very large interceptor missiles, and are designed to defend against swarming attacks,” he said.
Unlike air-to-air missiles limited in size by the jets that have to carry them, ship-based missile interceptors can measure more than 20 feet in length and have powerful boosters giving them better range and speed. Additionally, recent Chinese navy ships have emphasized these kinds of missiles and have deep magazines and many vertical launch cells for the aircraft-killing missiles.
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey with the JS Izumo (right) on the South China Sea.
(US Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kryzentia Weiermann)
But China’s navy likely has very little experience fighting stealth aircraft with its sea-based radars.
The stealth design of the F-35B will allow Japan’s military to “to operate at reasonable risk tolerance of advanced air defenses,” said Bronk, who called the jets “a lot more survivable in high-end warfare” than Japan’s fleet of F-15s.
In the future, Bronk said Japan will most likely leverage the F-35B’s extreme surveillance and recon capabilities to provide weapons-quality target information to other platforms, like Japanese or US warships, which can fire off their own missiles and allow the F-35Bs to stay in stealth mode without opening up the weapons bay.
For Japan, the new class of F-35B carriers signals a major shift in defense posture and the acknowledgement that defending their island claims may require high-end warfighting against China’s navy.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.