Flat Tops and Short Decks

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Izumo’s commissioning on August 6, 2013

Japan unveiled its biggest warship since World War II on Tuesday, a $1.2 billion helicopter carrier aimed at defending territorial claims.

The move drew criticism from regional rival China, which accused its neighbor of “constant” military expansion.

The ceremony to showcase the 248-meter (810-feet) vessel came as Shinzo Abe’s conservative government, which took office last December, considers ditching the nation’s pacifist constitution and beefing up the military.

Japan plans to use the helicopter carrier, named Izumo and expected to go into service in 2015, to defend territorial claims following maritime skirmishes with China, which has demonstrated its own military ambitions in recent years.

This is via Nick Prime, who points out the theoretical possibility of fielding the F-35 on these. (Here’s another story).

Which, honestly, is what I thought was basically the only thing keeping the B variant alive. It’s not just the USMC that needs a VTOL-capable aircraft (or in the case of the JSF, “aircraft”), but a lot of our allies and partners in the region who have been investing in flattops like these (see: HMAS Canberra, ROKS Dokdo, etc.) with the possibility of flying such planes off of them. Even the Europeans are getting in on it – the French have a pretty good platform in the Mistral class, hence the brouhaha over the Russian acquisition of four of them.

And in that case, there had better be an aircraft that can use the short-decks. I mean, helicopters are great and all, but if we’re going to at least play bluewater navy and accept that power projection via the aircraft carrier is still a) relevant, and b) desirable, then doing it on the cheap is probably the best compromise. At this point you might as well assume that you’re going to lose them, so why not go for the more basic version? The Marines probably aren’t thrilled about a CAS aircraft that’s only 80% better than its predecessor (though certainly more than 80% more costly), but the key is that it’s not just for them. Our friends are getting in the game, and that’s not a bad thing.

Anyways, it is nice to see the JMSDF get a new flagship (that’s how they determine them, right? The biggest?). And one whose name has an interesting history, too.

 

UPDATE: Kyle Mizokami, as usual, has written excellent words on the Izumo. Short version: Japan’s going to have to go big or go home.

The Next Island Chain

All too often, a newspaper’s article about an aspect of the Chinese military uses an alarming headline, builds up the “threat,” and then contradicts itself within the first few paragraphs. This time, it’s the New York Times in an article titled “China Expands Naval Power to Waters U.S. Dominates.”

YALONG BAY, China — The Chinese military is seeking to project naval power well beyond the Chinese coast, from the oil ports of the Middle East to the shipping lanes of the Pacific, where the United States Navy has long reigned as the dominant force, military officials and analysts say.

Well, OK, so far so good. Nothing there that we didn’t know already.

The strategy is a sharp break from the traditional, narrower doctrine of preparing for war over the self-governing island of Taiwan or defending the Chinese coast. Now, Chinese admirals say they want warships to escort commercial vessels that are crucial to the country’s economy, from as far as the Persian Gulf to the Strait of Malacca, in Southeast Asia, and to help secure Chinese interests in the resource-rich South and East China Seas.

Yeah, that’s also nothing new. The ‘three island chain plan‘ has been around for decades; this was just the logical next step. They’re in the Gulf of Aden already conducting anti-piracy operations.

The overall plan reflects China’s growing sense of self-confidence and increasing willingness to assert its interests abroad. China’s naval ambitions are being felt, too, in recent muscle flexing with the United States: in March, Chinese officials told senior American officials privately that China would brook no foreign interference in its territorial issues in the South China Sea, said a senior American official involved in China policy.

Well, seeing as the South China Sea is a part of the first island chain – an arena China’s been capable of defending and projecting itself into for some time – this doesn’t change anything, really. Much like the United States will brook no interference in its own territorial issues. I’m not even sure what the problem is here that Wong sees…

The naval expansion will not make China a serious rival to American naval hegemony in the near future, and there are few indications that China has aggressive intentions toward the United States or other countries.

Oh, there it is. Thank you, Edward Wong, for leading us on with five paragraphs about the growing menace of the Chinese Navy and abruptly telling us “oh, you know what? Don’t worry about all that stuff I just said. It doesn’t matter.” Sea denial has been the constant refrain of the Chinese for a decade; the fact that we’re just catching on now is the alarming part. That’s why China’s focus is on asymmetrical naval warfare – not carriers to fight our carriers, but land-based missiles to sink our carriers.

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Dragon at Sea: A Brief History of Chinese Navies

The strategic arena of East Asia.

SINCE THE END OF THE COLD WAR, American naval supremacy has been unchallenged throughout the world. Even during that massive, global struggle, the Soviet Navy never came close to rivaling the power projection capabilities of the United States (of course, this was never their intent).

With the dawning of the twenty-first century, however, many commentators are declaring it to be “China’s Century,” during which the People’s Republic will finally assume its rightful place as a counterweight to the United States. Despite the financial crisis currently engulfing the world, the U.S.-China trade deficit reached record levels in 2008, with $266 billion against the United States. If the economic sphere were a battlefield, China would surely be winning.

Yet, the crucial trade arena formed by the South China Sea, East China Sea, Yellow Sea, and Western Pacific Rim has gone largely ignored in China as an area of vital strategic importance. Half of the largest container lines in the world are owned and based in Asia, and one-third of the world’s shipping is owned by Asian nations.[1]

It would make sense, then, for China to possess and deploy a strong navy. Since the Communist victory over the Kuomintang (KMT) in 1949, maritime power has been neglected, but the last decade has seen an ascendant navalist faction in the upper echelons of the Politburo. China has now embarked upon a major program of modernizing the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), and while American superiority in the region is likely to remain for the near future, the rise of the PLAN will pose significant challenges to the United States Navy in decades to come.

While recent history would indicate otherwise, China has a long and storied naval heritage.

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A Peaceful Rise at Home?

From World Military Forum:

BEIJING – A stronger Chinese navy will not seek to build military bases overseas, a retired senior officer has said amid media reports that the country harbors such “ambitions”.

Zhang Deshun, who was till recently the deputy chief of staff of the PLA navy, said a naval force with advanced armaments and enhanced capabilities will contribute more to UN-led anti-terrorism, anti-piracy and disaster-relief missions.

A larger navy with a greater reach does not mean it will seek to play the role of “world police”, said the retired rear admiral, who is a deputy to the ongoing session of the National People’s Congress.

I don’t know how to read this. I see several possibilities, not all of which ascribe ulterior motives to the Chinese. But most of them do. The first would be that they’re serious about this, and genuinely believe that if not now, then in the very near future Chinese naval capabilities will be such that they don’t require any overseas support facilities.

If that is true, their public admission of this could serve a twofold purpose: downplay concerns of a Chinese global power play, and at the same time serve notice to the United States and other maritime powers that China is advanced to this degree. After all, the U.S. operates a network of naval facilities around the world – perhaps Beijing is so powerful it doesn’t have to?

Alternatively, China could be using this to distract from the ‘three island chain’ plan.

The 'second island chain' of Chinese maritime strategy.

By eliminating the ‘third island chain’ – global, blue-water power projection – China’s ambitions of regional hegemony seem much more restrained and reasonable in comparison. But keep in mind that even the ‘second island chain’ in the strategy is demarcated by a line running from southern Japan to Guam through the middle of Indonesia and terminating at Australia. It’s still quite a bit of space.

Am I just being paranoid?