TOKYO -- Defense policymakers in Japan and the U.S. are privately voicing concern about the total absence of U.S. aircraft carriers from East Asian waters for four months next year.
Budget constraints at home, combined with the rise of the Islamic State group in the Middle East, are limiting the American fleet's ability to operate in Asia. Temporarily at least, not a single aircraft carrier will be deployed in East Asia.
Japanese and U.S. officials fear having no U.S. carriers, which have long been the bedrock of the region's stability, could tempt North Korea and China to take advantage of the power vacuum to initiate a military adventure.
The USS George Washington, the only U.S. aircraft carrier with an overseas home port, is to leave its base for nuclear refueling and an overhaul. Until the USS Ronald Reagan arrives at the Japanese port of Yokosuka, located at the mouth of Tokyo Bay, to replace the ship, there will be no American carriers in East Asia, according to persons familiar with the matter.
The U.S. Navy has not disclosed details on the rotation, but the Ronald Reagan is expected to arrive sometime between the spring and autumn of 2015.
Who rules the waves?
A typical aircraft carrier can accommodate more than 50 fighter jets and about 15 helicopters. Carriers can quickly move to trouble spots and project air power. They are essentially mobile air bases that can establish air supremacy wherever they sail.
The U.S. Navy routinely deploys carriers to East Asia and the Persian Gulf to keep potential adversaries such as China, North Korea and Iran in line. For its part, China is working aggressively to build a fleet of aircraft carriers to enhance its naval air-defense capabilities in the South China Sea.
The U.S. has 10 carriers in service, but its military campaign against the Islamic State group, launched in August, is putting additional strains on the fleet.
The U.S. used to deploy two carriers to the Middle East, but budgetary constraints forced it to reduce the number to one around 2013. Some policymakers in the administration of President Barack Obama want a return to a two-carrier operation as the battle against Islamic State fighters continues.
Aircraft carriers for Japan?
The four-month absence of the big U.S. ships could prompt Japan to start developing its own fleet of aircraft carriers.
It would not have to build the vessels from scratch. Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force already has two helicopter carriers, the Hyuga and the Ise. The much larger Izumo is due to be completed soon. If these ships were converted to carry F-35B short-takeoff, vertical-landing fighters and escorted by Aegis-equipped destroyers, Japan would have a full-fledged convoy of aircraft carriers.
If fighting broke out between Japan and China in the waters around the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, Japan's Air Self-Defense Force fighters would have to be deployed from bases in Okinawa or Kyushu. The long flights from these bases would limit the amount of time they could operate in the area. A Japanese fleet of carriers, on the other hand, could bring fighters near the islands, which are known as Diaoyu in China.
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 growing fiscal squeeze and frequent conflicts around the world have led to new priorities. Washington is now making it clear that it wants its allies to be able to deal with strategic challenges close to home on their own.
Australia is moving in this direction. The idea of turning its two Canberra-class amphibious assault ships into aircraft carriers by equipping them with F-35B fighters has been floated in the country. It appears any move in this direction would be designed to secure independent defense capabilities against emergencies when no U.S. carriers are deployed in the Pacific and Indian oceans.
Washington's planned four-month break from carrier duty in East Asia may be aimed at nudging Tokyo into building its own fleet of carriers, nearly 70 years after the U.S. effectively assumed responsibility for Japan's naval air defense and combat.