TOKYO — Security policymakers in Japan and the U.S. are privately voicing concern about the absence of U.S. aircraft carriers from East Asian waters for four months next year.
Budget restrictions in the U.S. and turmoil in the Middle East is putting pressure on the fleet’s capability and will mean not a single aircraft carrier is deployed in East Asia.
Japanese and U.S. officials fear having no U.S. carriers in the region could provide China and North Korea with an opportunity to take military action.
The USS George Washington, the only U.S. aircraft carrier with an overseas homeport, is to leave its base in Japan for refueling and extensive maintenance. Until the USS Ronald Reagan arrives at the Japanese port of Yokosuka to replace the ship, there will be no American carrier in East Asia for about four months, according to U.S. and Japanese officials.
The U.S. Navy has not disclosed details about the replacement, but it is expected sometime between spring and autumn next year.
Pressure on U.S. fleet
A typical aircraft carrier can accommodate more than 50 fighter jets and about 15 helicopters. Carriers can quickly arrive at a trouble spot and provide air combat power. They are, essentially, mobile air bases that can be used to secure air supremacy.
The U.S. Navy routinely deploys carriers to regions such as East Asia and the Persian Gulf to put pressure on countries such as China, North Korea and Iran.
China is building a fleet of aircraft carriers to enhance its naval air defense capability in South China Sea.
The U.S. has 10 carriers in service. However, its military campaign against the Islamic State launched in August is putting additional strains on its fleet. The U.S. used to deploy two carriers to the Middle East, but reduced the number to one in around 2013 due to fiscal restraints. Some policymakers within the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, want a return to the two-carrier operation as the battle against Islamic State fighters continues.
Could Japan build its own fleet?
The four-month absence could prompt Japan to start developing its own fleet of aircraft carriers.
Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force already has two helicopter carriers, Hyuga and Ise. The larger Izumo is due to be finished soon.
If fighting broke out between Japan and China in the waters around the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, Air Self-Defense Force fighters would have to be deployed from bases in Okinawa or Kyushu. Flights from these bases would use a large amount of fuel. A Japanese fleet of carriers could get fighters to the islands, known as Diaoyu in Chinese.
From the end of World War II through the Cold War, U.S. policy was to keep Japan dependent on its military power. But the fiscal squeeze and frequent conflicts around the world has led to a shift in policy. Washington is now asking its allies to be able to deal with situations close to them.
Australia plans to build a fleet of carriers as it seeks to bolster its defense capabilities.