Philip Radford, writing for the Strategist blog, contends that the Izumo is in fact an aircraft carrier in disguise, that Japanese engineers could modify the stern section of the ship to form an elevated runway (or ‘ski-jump’), thereby allowing the Izumo to accommodate at least 20 F-35B STOVL capable fighter aircraft to contend with any Chinese attempt to seize Japanese territory in the East China Sea. This capability would give Japan the equivalent to Britain’s Harriers that were used to repel an Argentinian air force five times larger than its own during the Falklands War of 1982. The fact that Japan is planning to build another ship of similar size only gives Radford more reason to suspect that this is precisely what Japanese strategists have in mind (as a second vessel could be used for recovery – or landings, while the first allows for launches).
Chinese observers certainly share Radford’s views, as on the day following the completion ceremony both regional Chinese newspapers and the Liberation Army Newspaper contended that the Izumo could easily be modified to accommodate fighter aircraft, and that its completion was evidence that Japan was headed in a nationalistic direction and ignoring ‘the lessons of history’. Gideon Rachman, writing in the Financial Times, stated that the Izumo appeared to be deliberately aimed at antagonising China, given that the name ‘Izumo’ was shared by an Imperial Japanese vessel that was used during the campaign in China in the 1930s (E).
As most commentary on the Izumo has focused on its potential capabilities and meaning (see, for example, here, here and here), it is clear that the MOD’s protestations that the Izumo is only meant for disaster and peace-keeping missions isn’t really cutting it with amateur and expert analysts alike (this does, of course, depend on whether the observer in question believes that the Izumo is intended to give Japan an offensive capability. Cory Wallace, writing for Japan Security Watch, noted that the Izumo does not have a ski-jump, or Thermion landing pads to allow for the F-35B’s vertical landing capability, could only accommodate a limited number of F-35Bs, and that given these restrictions, it is unlikely that the Izumo was designed to allow for offensive operations. Moreover, Japan does not currently possess any F-35B aircraft and may not be able to afford them, so it makes little sense to build a potential aircraft carrier for aircraft that you may never actually possess).
The Japan Marine United Corporation began construction of the Izumo in September of 2012 which, as readers would be aware, co-incided with the incursion of Chinese vessels into Japan’s EEZ around the Senkaku Islands (and kudos go to the designers, engineers and shipbuilders at JMUC for realising the plans for the Izumo in just 11 months. As the Izumo is essentially a modified Hyūga class this would not have presented much of a problem, but it is indicative of the ability of Japan’s heavy industries to complete projects in record time). So it does appear that the Izumo has more of a defensive than offensive purpose, and that purpose would presumably be to launch and support amphibious operations (in anticipation of the development of a marine corps, as explored here and here).
While speculation about Japan’s motives in launching such a vessel are perfectly reasonable, any belief that Japan is set upon a course of open confrontation with China appears to draw upon a range of mitigating circumstances and assign to Japan capabilities that it does not yet possess or motives that would be contrary to Japan’s interests (reaching for the gun before trying to talk is an anathema to post-war Japanese diplomacy – even the Abe administration continues to press for talks with China’s leadership to reach some form of agreement on the Senkaku Islands). If Japan believed that it was facing a direct, immediate threat to its security, it would not be trying to cage its abilities or seek ‘permission’ from the US or other regional nations before acting. While the Izumo could be modified for offensive capabilities, its purpose is exactly as the MOD describes – to provide support to SDF troops involved in disaster response operations and exercises, a sort of ‘floating heliport’ to stand in for damaged or destroyed port infrastructure.