When the U.S. Navy supercarrier USS Carl Vinson sailed past the assault ship USS America and the British flattop HMS Queen Elizabeth in the waters south of Okinawa on Wednesday, she put a cap on one of the greatest concentrations of naval firepower in years.
But the three-flattop deployment was a preview of an even more powerful allied force to come. For sailing alongside America and Queen Elizabeth was a helicopter carrier that, in coming years, will undergo transformation into the Japanese navy’s first aircraft carrier since the country’s defeat in World War II.
The 814-foot JS Kaga is one of two Izumo-class helicopter carriers slated to undergo modification to accommodate F-35B stealth jump jets. Izumo began her $30-million rework last summer. Kaga is scheduled for alteration—reinforcement of her deck and removal of a bow-mounted gun—in 2022. Japan’s 42 F-35Bs should enter service starting in 2024.
In other words, if the same vessels that appeared south of Okinawa this week were to gather again three years from now, there would be four flattops in the group rather than three.
The expansion of allied naval power in the western Pacific is an important corollary to China’s own naval expansion. Yes, Beijing is building one of the biggest and most capable navies in the world. But not in a vacuum. The United States and its closest allies are acquiring new and better ships of their own—and preparing to combine them.
Vinson, which sailed from San Diego three weeks ago, is filling in for the Japan-based flattop USS Ronald Reagan, which normally sails the Western Pacific but at present is in the Indian Ocean covering the U.S. retreat from Afghanistan.
The 1,092-foot, nuclear-powered Vinson is the first of the U.S. fleet’s 10 supercarriers to embark a squadron of big-wing F-35C stealth fighters. Vinson didn’t actually join up with America, Queen Elizabeth, Kaga and their escorts south of Okinawa. Rather, she sailed around the group, bound for the port of Yokosuka in eastern Japan.
Still, Vinson’s close brush with the other vessels resulted in the biggest-ever assembly of maritime stealth fighters. America, 844 feet from bow to stern, embarks at least six vertical-landing F-35Bs. The 919-foot Queen Elizabeth has 16 F-35Bs aboard. Add Vinson’s 10 catapult-launched F-35Cs, and you’ve got at least 32 stealth fighters. Kaga should be able to embark up to 10 F-35Bs.
Vinson’s F-35Cs aren’t compatible with the other three big-deck ships. The C-model Joint Strike Fighter needs a catapult to launch and an arrestor wire to recover. America, Queen Elizabeth, Kaga lack these “cats and traps.” The F-35Bs they carry have downward-blasting lift fans that allow them to take off after a short rolling run and land straight down.
It makes a lot of sense to combine three vessels that eventually fill operate the same fighter type. In wartime, it’s unlikely three flattops would sail within sight of each other. Rather, they’d spread out in order to complicate the enemy’s targeting. The Chinese rocket force possesses hundreds of long-range anti-ship missiles, any one of which could disable or sink a carrier.
Spreading out adds flexibility. F-35Bs launching from a British carrier could refuel on an American carrier and recover on a Japanese one. Each deck is a base extending the range and endurance of any compatible plane.
In preparation for this “cross-decking,” America and Queen Elizabeth spent last week swapping F-35Bs. In three years’ time, Kaga could join the naval swap-meet.