For some time now, this blog was of the opinion that Japan would likely skip the F-35 fighter due to availability and cost: the F-35 won’t be deliverable to Japan until 2020 at the earliest, and for the projected cost, Japan could probably find other alternatives. (More on that later this week.)

That, however, was for the F-X program. What about a separate naval aviation program? This blog didn’t think Japan needed that either. But the likely impending creation of a Japanese Marine Corps raises some questions.

As a defensive force, Japanese marines would be called on to retake territory–likely small islands–that have been occupied by a foreign power. The Japanese archipelago is large and far-flung, creating vast distances aircraft would have to travel in order to support forces on the ground. The farthest southern island, Yonaguni, is more than a thousand kilometers from the mainland. To illustrate the problem this creates, the range of the F-2 fighter is only 834km, meaning a 400km combat radius. Japanese combat aircraft have midair refueling capability, but Japan has only 4 KC-767 aerial refueling aircraft.

This would create two problems in support marine forces from the mainland. First, Japanese forces would have to either have to suffer long transit times or build a network of air bases in the far-flung areas. Second, islands don’t move, and thus an adversary would always know which direction Japanese aircraft would come from.

Helicopters and UAVs could provide close air support for Japanese marines but for the air superiority mission manned fighters are still the only answer. Aside from simply making do or building new airfields, there is that third option: converting 22DDH “helicopter carriers” to carry fixed-wing aircraft, which, with minimal modifications, they would be quite capable of doing.

A carrier would put all fighter aircraft at sea, where they would be more difficult to destroy than on fixed land bases. A carrier could also stay close to the action, providing local air cover. Japan would need fewer new carriers than it would new air bases, which in Japan carry their own set of problems, particularly with the locals.

And what aircraft would Japan put on the converted helicopter destroyers? Why the only game in town, of course: the F-35.

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 530 post(s) on Japan Security Watch