Japan sets sights on first aircraft carrier since WW II
TOKYO — Japan plans to have an aircraft carrier for the first time since World War II, a move that has raised eyebrows even though Tokyo insists it will not mark any shift from its pacifist defense posture.
The plan to modify at least one of its two Izumo-class helicopter destroyers such that it can launch a variant of the stealth F-35 fighter jet will be crystallized in new defense guidelines to be approved by the Cabinet this week, media reports have said.
Other plans reportedly in the guidelines, which will cover five years from April next year, include the purchase of 105 F-35 jets from the United States to replace an aging fleet of F-15s, and the deployment of unmanned surveillance submarines, as well as long-range and hypersonic missiles to defend its small islands, including the Okinawa chain.
The 105 jets will include 42 F-35B aircraft, which have short take-off and vertical landing capabilities and have not yet been deployed in Japan. Tokyo hopes the big-ticket purchase – which contributes to a record 27.5 trillion yen (S$333 billion) five-year defense budget – will go some ways in mollifying US President Donald Trump, who has pilloried Japan, a key security ally, for its huge trade surplus.
Japanese analysts told The Straits Times that the new measures signal heightened concerns over a hostile security environment, marked by increasing Chinese and Russian military presence in waters around Japan, the stymied progress of North Korea’s denuclearization and emerging cross-domain threats.
But much attention is being paid, however, to the proposed upgrades to the Izumo as its new-found offensive capability will go well beyond that of self-defense and despite a pacifist Constitution, which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to amend by 2020.
Japan’s two Izumo-class vessels, named Izumo and Kaga, are its largest destroyers at 248m in length and 27,000 tonnes in weight. They are each now capable of carrying 14 helicopters, though, when modified, will be able to carry the F-35B variant.
Kyodo news agency, citing a passage from the guidelines, reported that the upgrade will “enable fighter jets to be operated from existing warships, if necessary, to improve the flexibility of their operation”.
Dr Narushige Michishita from Japan’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies told The Straits Times the upgrade will be an important step, despite limits to how the Izumo can be modified that will in turn “limit the operational radius of any fighter aircraft”.
Nonetheless, the modification will enable the Izumo to be a more all-round carrier that can “operate in a much more hostile environment than before, therefore enhancing its value as an anti-submarine warfare platform while building on its air defense capability”, he added.
Kobe University security expert Tosh Minohara said the upgrade will boost Japan’s power projection. He said: “As the old adage goes, the best defense is a good offense, which in this case is the deterrence effect.”
Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya has stressed that Japan will not label an upgraded Izumo as an “attack aircraft carrier”, and that it will not pose any threat to other countries, even if fighter jets were to be deployed.
China’s Global Times newspaper, however, slammed the plan, accusing Japan of resorting to the “China threat theory as an excuse to do what it wants”.
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