‘Lightning Carriers’ Could Be Lightweights in an Asian War
Earlier this month, U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II fighters embarked on the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force ship JS Izumo as a capability validation. The event marked an important step in the Izumo’s metamorphosis from a flat-deck helicopter carrier (called a “helicopter destroyer” in Japanese nomenclature) into a light aircraft carrier operating advanced fifth-generation short take-off and vertical landing fighters. This is a landmark event for the Japanese navy and Japan’s defense posture more generally, giving Tokyo an aircraft carrier for the first time since World War II. It is also a milestone on a path that is establishing smaller aircraft carriers equipped with the F-35B Lightning II, or “Lightning carriers,” as the new capital ships of Asia.
The U.S. Navy forward-deployed its own Lightning carrier, the USS America, to Sasebo, Japan in 2019. In 2021, the United Kingdom dispatched HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Indo-Pacific on her maiden voyage. South Korea also plans to launch a Lightning carrier by the end of this decade. Procurement of F-35 variants also cracks the door for Singapore or Australia to similarly appoint their large-deck ship programs with carrier-aviation capabilities should they choose to do so. Asia’s Lightning carriers will boost national prestige, but will also come at high cost.
The new capital ships will certainly provide significant additional capabilities for the invested navies, as each navy’s Lightning carriers will have unique roles and configurations that address each nation’s requirements. Resourcing these large ships, state-of-the-art aircraft, and the training and maintenance programs needed to reliably deploy carrier-based aviation capabilities also represents a huge strategic investment by each of the nations involved. Therefore, these procurement decisions signify a strong rebuke of the increasing skepticism regarding the value of aircraft carriers in an age where they face long-range precision strike capabilities and increasingly capable submarines. Examining the Lightning carriers within the context of national defense postures, strategies, and operational doctrines suggests what roles these platforms will likely play in regional naval dynamics.
Despite their power, the Lightning carriers are unlikely to change the anticipated operational outcomes of the combat scenarios envisioned around hotspots like the Korean Peninsula, the Senkaku islands, the Taiwan Strait, and the South China Sea. As a result, they are unlikely to shift the balance of naval power driving deterrence calculations. Should a war break out in and around the confined waters of the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan, Lightning carriers will offer a marginal additional capability that comes at high cost in comparison to what could be created through investments in long-range land-based aircraft and the development of more flexible, resilient, and distributed land-basing options. In a South China Sea conflict, carriers give both South Korea and Japan new options should they be drawn into the fracas, since those waters are beyond the range within which those nations can assemble combat power. However, if they did make such a decision they would have to run a gauntlet of Chinese anti-access/area-denial capabilities to reach the operational theater. The British carriers will likely be far away, so their value could be understood as assets that augment the U.S. Navy’s global pool of 11 supercarriers and two Lightning carriers.
The key driver behind the emergence of the new light carriers is the F-35B aircraft. The F-35B offers a remarkable advancement in capability over the previous generation of short take-off and vertical landing aircraft, primarily the venerable AV-8B Harrier II, which it replaces in the American and British inventories. The F-35’s low-observable design, highly capable electronic warfare and attack capabilities, and enormous data fusion and sharing functions will give the new light carriers cutting-edge warfighting capabilities. The F-35 can act as a data-sharing hub and use its own sensors to extend the “eyes and ears” of the mother ship, acting as an organic airborne intelligence-gathering and limited early-warning asset. The aircraft offers significant independent “Day 1” offensive options before opponents’ air defenses are diminished, as well as defensive options for a commander.
The first of the new Lightning carriers in the region was the USS America. This 45,000-ton vessel is equipped with a 257-meter flight deck and a large aircraft hangar that can carry about twenty F-35B fighters alongside MV-22B Osprey tiltrotors and conventional helicopters. The USS America is designated as a Landing Helicopter Assault ship and serves as the flagship of Expeditionary Strike Group Seven, an amphibious warfare task group configured to embark more than 2,000 marines and their equipment, and is escorted by destroyers and submarines as necessary.
In this role, the America has been quite active in the region, conducting exercises and presence operations. For example, in 2020, USS America conducted operations regarded as a show of force in the vicinity of Chinese vessels, which were interfering with the operations of Malaysia’s petroleum drillship West Capella. While a conventional big-deck amphibious ship could have done this mission with its less-capable air element, neither the political message nor the military implications would have been as sharp. At the time, the U.S. Navy’s sole forward-deployed supercarrier, USS Ronald Reagan, was undergoing maintenance in Japan while the USS Theodore Roosevelt, another carrier deployed at the time, was hamstrung in Guam by a COVID-19 outbreak. Hence the America provided the Seventh Fleet with bench depth with its organic fifth-generation fighter force.
Going forward, USS America is likely to be frequently “subbed in” for peacetime missions normally assigned to the supercarriers. However, without the integrated organic capabilities for surveillance, mission control, and refueling found in a full-fledged carrier air wing, it should not be considered a substitute, not even a “substitute-lite”, in combat scenarios. The America’s lack of true 360-degree coverage airborne early warning and control and aerial refueling capabilities limit the ship’s overall independent combat value. However, the U.S. Marine Corps has considered various solutions to these capability gaps, including considering aerial refueller and airborne early-warning variants of the trusted MV-22. While these solutions offer benefits, the platform itself is not survivable in contested environments and could thus only operate close to the mother ship.
The Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth is a larger and more capable ship than the America, displacing 65,000 tons and featuring a 280-meter flight deck. Unlike USS America, the Queen Elizabeth is fitted with a “ski-jump” ramp, allowing its Lightning IIs to launch with heavier payloads. The ship will typically deploy with around two dozen F-35Bs. Along with her sister-ship, HMS Prince of Wales, the Queen Elizabeth will serve as the vanguard of the Royal Navy’s support to London’s “Global Britain” foreign policy aspirations. As impressive “ambassadors” of defense diplomacy, the carrier strike groups centered around these vessels will demonstrate the United Kingdom’s renewed maritime vigor and help to build global partnerships. This utilization is reflected in the bold decision to set the carrier strike group’s maiden deployment destination as the Indo-Pacific, a high-profile symbol of the United Kingdom’s “tilt” toward the region outlined in its latest policy documents, including the 2021 integrated review and Defence in a Competitive Age.
The Queen Elizabeth’s July transit through the Singapore Strait likely put American strategic planners slightly more at ease with their decision to redeploy the Japan-based Ronald Reagan from the Pacific to support America’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan. While the U.S. Navy will likely appreciate a more globally orientated Britain, questions remain about the sustainability of resources for the United Kingdom’s newly acquired Indo-Pacific aspiration. The carriers themselves are tremendously expensive and complex. So will be recreating the United Kingdom’s carrier aviation training and maintenance programs, though the Royal Air Force is reducing those costs by exclusively purchasing the short take-off and vertical landing-capable F-35Bs rather than going with a mixed force of F-35As and F-35Bs. Moreover, the Royal Navy lacks enough ships to reliably source sufficient escorts without leaning on allies and partners, as was evident during the carrier’s maiden deployment this year. The carrier strike group’s surface escort force was composed of warships from the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Netherlands.
The rule of thumb for surface ships force generation states that investing two parts in training and maintenance yields one part deployable time. Therefore, one carrier deployment to the Indo-Pacific every three years would require the Royal Navy to devote roughly half of its capital ships to that mission. Furthermore, carrier readiness must align with cycles for aircraft and surface escorts, both of which have tasks that will compete with strike group workup and deployment periods. Given the growing concern over a resurgent Russia and other alliance commitments, the Royal Navy will likely be stretched thin. As a result, the Royal Navy’s two carriers may sail to the Indo-Pacific less often than many would hope. We can also expect the British Lightning carrier employment to tie the United Kingdom’s global force posture more deeply to the United States and other allies. While acting in the British national interest, the carriers’ combat operations will most likely take place within coalition contexts.
Like the United Kingdom, Japan is in the process of adding two light carriers to its fleet. JS Izumo and her sister-ship, JS Kaga, are much smaller than the Queen Elizabeth, only about 20,000 tons with 248-meter flat flight decks. These ships are expected to operate around a dozen F-35Bs with a surge capacity to double that. Although the U.S. Marine Corps F-35 demonstrated the Izumo‘s ability to support F-35B operations, it is not expected to reach full operational capability until 2028. Before then, the ship will undergo another industrial refit period and wait for the Japan Air Self Defense Force to introduce the F-35B into service, with the initial operational capability expected only by March 2024.
Like their British counterparts, the Izumo and the Kaga should be considered as assets of both their nation and a tight alliance with the United States. However, the Japanese navy does not share the Royal Navy’s global operational ambitions, despite possessing a much larger fleet. We can expect to see these ships mostly operating closer to home, deterring the potential aggression of immediate neighbors. They will also continue service, along with unconverted flat-deck “helicopter destroyers,” in the rotation of flagships leading the annual “Indo-Pacific Deployments” engaging in presence operations and defense diplomacy in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. The Japanese Lightning carriers’ most likely operational role in a conflict would be to provide mobile airfields for conducting combat around Japan’s southwestern islands. This will certainly be a useful option for planners seeking to conduct distributed operations while contending with the conundrum of having many of their land bases within the range of China’s long-range precision-strike capabilities that hold an overwhelming quantitative advantage over Japanese defenses.
Japan’s economy is about twice the size of that of the United Kingdom and they have elected for carriers that are more modest in terms of size, capabilities, and strategic aspiration. Japanese voters have been generally supportive and the ruling political party has vowed the budget growth need to support this project among other expensive priorities, but there are still questions about its fiscal merits. Japan has not had a fixed-wing carrier aviation program since World War II, so it must go through the costly process of developing training, doctrine, and tactics from the scratch. Surely, like the United Kingdom, Japan will receive a lot of assistance from the United States, but this is still a huge cost for a force facing increasingly severe economic pressures associated with a stagnant economy, shrinking national population, and recruiting challenges.
Japan had other options to achieve similar operational capabilities at lower cost. Japan’s Ryukyu Islands are home to two dozen airfields suitable for operating both the F-35A and F-35B. Moreover, the F-35B helps to turn any smaller commercial airfield into a potential forward base. While the airfields lack a carrier’s inherent mobility and their static location makes them vulnerable to enemy targeting, their quantity and operating units’ inherent ability to rapidly move between them has a meaningful value. Furthermore, unlike a ship, a damaged runway can be repaired and recommence air operations relatively quickly. Japan and its partners regularly rehearse rapid runway repair. For example, during the 2020 COPE North exercise, a combined U.S.-Japanese-Australian force removed 1,200 pieces of unexploded ordnance from 5,000 feet of runway in 2 hours 17 minutes. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that an adversary could keep all useable runways continually out of action. Further investments in distributed and resilient operational posture could arguably offer an alternative to the Japanese light carriers in the First Island Chain. While the use of “immobile aircraft carriers” does not sit well with the U.S. Navy’s outlook, an investment in dozens of “unsinkable aircraft carriers” and highly mobile and distributed force structure makes a lot of sense given Japan’s unique geography and the nature of the threats that it faces.
The other Asian navy with a defined Lightning carrier program is South Korea. Seoul originally planned for its Lightning carriers to be part of its amphibious force, but its revised plan involves a bigger ship, dubbed the CVX program, of 30,000-40,000 tons with a 265-meter flight deck. Of all the nations set to operate light carriers in the Indo-Pacific, South Korea’s strategic rationale seems least clear. Certainly, a cadre within the South Korean navy envisions an active blue-water force commensurate with the country’s status as a major trading nation and one of the world’s top three shipbuilders. However, those strategists also recognize that South Korea’s most immediate threat remains North Korea.
A South Korean carrier’s near- to mid-term operational function would be focused on providing a highly survivable airfield that could also provide an additional axis of attack to strike targets well within North Korea. However, given the Korean Peninsula’s constrained geography, options like improving airbase defenses and resilience and investing in larger payload and longer endurance-strike aircraft could do the same at significantly lower cost. Recognizing these trade-offs, South Korea’s maritime strategists may be more focused on the CVX as a preparation for an increasingly competitive future where both China and Japan are operating carrier forces. While this decision certainly reflects some element of prestige-oriented contests, it also makes sense that South Korea wants to develop similar capabilities to the larger states that surround it.
Just two years ago, only two aircraft carriers, USS Ronald Reagan and China’s Liaoning, were permanently based in East Asia. Today, the Chinese navy operates two carriers and plans to add another two full-sized carriers and develop a class of light carriers of its own. By the end of the decade, three Lightning carriers, USS America, JS Izumo, and JS Kaga, will operate from Japan. South Korea plans to field one light carrier sometime in the early 2030s. The region will also receive visits from the Royal Navy’s two Lightning carriers. This is an incredible plus-up in terms of resource investments and a double-down in these states’ navalist visions. They are powerful symbols of intent that will deliver new capabilities to national governments seeking to influence the region’s strategic direction. Relative to their huge costs, however, they will do little to change the anticipated outcomes of the region’s most likely maritime combat scenarios.
John Frederick Bradford is senior fellow in the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. Bradford holds a master’s in in strategic studies from RSIS and a bachelor’s (magna cum laude) in Asian studies from Cornell University. He retired from the U.S. Navy with the rank of commander. His U.S. Navy assignments included service as the deputy director of the 7th Fleet Maritime Headquarters, as country director for Japan in the Office of the Secretary of Defense-Policy, and as commanding officer of a ballistic missile defense-capable Aegis destroyer forward deployed to Japan.
Olli Pekka Suorsa, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Rabdan Academy in the United Arab Emirates. Before joining Rabdan, Suorsa worked as a research fellow in the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore. Dr Suorsa received his Ph.D. from the City University of Hong Kong, master’s from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and bachelor’s from the Tallinn University of Technology, Estonia.