With the seas heating up around them, Tokyo and Seoul are considering their next moves. Accelerating geopolitical trends, from the Chinese navy's continued development to North Korea's nuclear program, are driving Japan and South Korea, two key naval powers in the Western Pacific, to evaluate plans for the development of aircraft carriers. However, both appear to be pursuing a more restricted strategy because of their limited military budgets and — in Japan’s case — the constraints imposed by history. Nevertheless, their serious consideration of this naval expansion attests to the heated maritime competition in the region.
Dipping a Toe in the Water
Japan once fielded one of the best carrier fleets in the world, but its past capabilities on the sea have hindered, more than heralded, the return of a carrier fleet. Wary of its own military history, in which carrier fleets spearheaded assaults and invasions across the Pacific early in World War II, Japan largely chose to eschew aircraft carriers after 1945. With "offensive weapons" prohibited by Japan's pacifist constitution — and questions about whether carriers constitute such weapons — the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force has taken pains to make its Hyuga- and Izumo-class vessels appear less like helicopter carriers, describing them as helicopter destroyers, even though they effectively function like the former.
All that, however, appears to be changing. According to Japan's Kyodo News agency, the government is considering making its two Izumo vessels into full-fledged aircraft carriers capable of transporting and launching F-35B stealth fighters. While still in its infancy, the proposal stems from Japan's broader move to normalize its military. It is concerned about its perceived inability to launch pre-emptive attacks against North Korean missile bases and about China's rapidly growing naval capability, including its carrier fleet.
Not to be left out, South Korea is also reportedly considering acquiring a carrier fleet. Much like Japan, South Korea is mulling whether to alter its Dokdo-class helicopter carrier to host the F-35B, which will feature advanced software and stealth capabilities. Beyond Seoul's pressing concern over the threat posed by North Korea and the rising power of China's navy, South Korea also wishes to remain in step with developments in Japan, especially due to the long-standing maritime and territorial disputes between the two.
Trailing in China's Wake
The major catalyst driving Tokyo's and Seoul's plans is China, which has been rapidly expanding its carrier fleet. While the Type 001A, China's first domestically produced aircraft carrier, will set sail for sea trials in the next few months, there are indications that Beijing has commenced preparations to construct another aircraft carrier, the Type 002, at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai. Together with the already operational Type 001 Liaoning, the Chinese navy will soon boast three aircraft carriers, with the possibility of more to come. And this rapid increase of China's fleet does not even include the Type 075 amphibious assault ship, which is being built by Hudong-Zhonghua Shipbuilding in Shanghai.
Ultimately, Tokyo and Seoul are pursuing more limited plans than Beijing is — whose collection of carriers will resemble a smaller version of the U.S. fleet — because Japan and South Korea have fewer resources to allocate to their smaller navies. Once Japan's Izumo-class and South Korea's Dokdo-class warships undergo modifications to reinforce and heat-proof the decks to withstand the exhaust produced by the F-35B jets' vertical takeoffs and landings, the vessels will have the capability of transporting more than 12 F-35Bs each. In contrast, China's Type 001 and Type 001A carriers will be capable of transporting about three dozen fighter jets each, while the Type 002 will hold even more. The latter will also possess electromagnetic catapult launch systems, enabling it to carry key support and force multiplier aircraft, such as airborne early-warning aircraft and aerial refueling aircraft.
Whatever the size of Tokyo's and Seoul's proposed carrier fleets, their plans remain a significant development, because the modified vessels will host F-35B aircraft that will allow their navies to better defend their sea lanes, to conduct strikes on distant land targets and to bolster air defense for their fleets. In sum, modernizing the carriers will greatly enhance the options for these East Asian neighbors to address the numerous threats emerging in the region — an area where maritime competition is likely to grow only fiercer.