Back in 2012, China inaugurated its first aircraft carrier called the Liaoning – a refurbished Ukrainian flattop. However, this carrier – which is also called as 001 – has limited combat capabilities and is most likely being used for training personnel for the domestic carriers that Beijing is building. The first of these domestic carriers, the 002, was already launched this spring and is likely to enter into service sometime in 2020 with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Starting with the 002, China’s flattops are expected to be more advanced and powerful. A factor that Beijing’s neighbors and the rest of the world will have to contend with – which is especially true for Japan, China’s traditional rival.
China’s DF-21D “carrier-killer” and the rest of its rapidly modernizing features puts it in the elite club of the countries with the greatest naval powers in the world. In theory, Japan could also build (more) powerful anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) because of course, it is a technologically advanced country and its scientists could produce quality and reliable missiles. After all, Tokyo has experience with missile defense systems and space launch technology. However, this would be a wrongheaded approach because it would take some time and would be costly – best compared with America’s 247 Pershing-II missiles built late in the Cold War costing some $2.6 billion or roughly $5.8 billion in 2017 dollars. Furthermore, China has extensive experience in missiles which includes ballistic missiles for nuclear weapons.
To deal with China’s aircraft carriers, Japan must not imitate Beijing but should pursue its own competitive strategy instead. In short, make use of what’s available and what the country is best at. As mentioned earlier, Japan might have experience with missile defense systems and space launch technology; however, China is way ahead. So, Japan has to focus on the area where it excels, which are submarines.
The Soryu-class submarines of Tokyo are arguably one of the most powerful and capable subs in the world. At 4 200 tons submerged, Soryu-class submarines are the largest submarines built by Japan. At 275 feet long and nearly twenty-eight feet wide, each of the subs has a range of 6 100 nautical miles and can reportedly dive to 2 132 feet of depth.
According to Zachary Keck of The National Interest, submarines (even the far less capable) pose an enormous threat to aircraft carriers. As one U.S. official quoted “One small submarine has the ability to threaten a large capital asset like an aircraft carrier.”
Also, aside from the advantage mentioned above, submarines are cost effective. The relatively expensive Soryu-class subs of Japan cost roughly around half a billion dollars per unit. Japan could build eleven units of them for the amount of money that America had spent in building the Pershing-II missiles. Best of all, it is noted that anti-submarine warfare (ASW) is China’s weakness.
Japan and China still stew over a list of lingering war conflicts including the Opium Wars and the Nanjing massacre, and just recently, contest a group of uninhabited islets – known as the Diaoyu Islands. As China approaches the day when it will have multiple aircraft carriers and would be able to send more planes to surround the islands or even keep them parked nearby, the tension between the two countries might be heightened. On the other hand, Japan has four aircraft carriers but ranks 7th as a country to have the world’s strongest military as compared to China which ranks 3rd – according to a statistical database GlobalFirePower(dot)com.
Given the statistics, thus, submarines offer the most economical and cost-effective means for Japan to deal with China’s aircraft carriers.