If Japan’s interest in fighter jets portends plans for aircraft carrier, backlash from China will be swift

The Defence Ministry is reportedly considering buying F-35B fighter jets, which are capable of short take-offs and vertical landings, to put them on upgraded helicopter carriers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 December, 2017, 3:43pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 December, 2017, 9:14pm

The Japanese government’s reported interest in purchasing F-35B fighter jets, which are capable of short take-offs and vertical landings, offers the latest indication it wants an aircraft carrier, possibly by upgrading an existing Izumo-class carrier.

Such a move could be useful in countering China’s growing maritime assertiveness and could bolster defences of far-flung islands in Japan’s southwest, but would also apparently contravene the country’s post-war pacifist constitution.

The Japanese government remained tight-lipped following the reports but confirmed it would explore appropriate defence capabilities.

“We will constantly review our defence abilities from various perspectives,” said Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera, adding the country continues to uphold what it calls an exclusively defence-oriented policy.

But the minister denied “specific efforts” had been made to modify the Maritime Self-Defence Force’s (MSDF) flat-topped destroyer into an aircraft carrier, from which fighter jets could take off and land.

We will constantly review our defence abilities from various perspectives
Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera

Under Japan’s defence-oriented policy, the government has maintained it cannot possess “attack aircraft carriers” as they could be deemed offensive weapons exceeding the minimum necessary capacity for self-defence.

The MSDF destroyer is known as a “helicopter carrier”. Its largest Izumo-class carriers are 248 metres long and can carry up to 14 helicopters.

Reports indicate the Defence Ministry is considering buying F-35B fighter jets, which are capable of short take-offs and vertical landings, and could possible be deployed from an upgraded helicopter carrier.

Japan has already been purchasing F-35As for its Air Self-Defence Force (ASDF) as part of a plan to acquire a total of 42 of the aircraft. But sources said the Defence Ministry is considering including some F-35Bs in its purchase, or buying some F-35Bs in addition to the 42 F-35As, which have conventional take-off and landing capability.

The F-35Bs could therefore be used to counter China and strengthen the defences of the islands in Japan’s southwest, where only short runways exist.

A 3,000-metre runway is usually needed for the take-off and landing of fighter jets, but Shimojijima Airport is the only airport equipped with a long runway among the islands located southwest of Okinawa’s main island. However, Shimojijima Airport is not allowed to be used by military aircraft based on an accord reached in 1971 between the central and local governments.

With the F-35Bs, the ASDF could use small airports in remote islands such as Yonaguni and step up its surveillance activities of the area.

Such a move, however, would likely trigger a backlash from China and other neighbouring countries.

Yonaguni is only about 100km east of Taiwan. The disputed Senkakus in the East China Sea – called the Diaoyus by China – are located about 150km north of Yonaguni.

Chinese vessels have frequently entered Japanese territorial waters around the uninhabited islets.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has pushed for various changes in Japan’s post-war security policy over the past years, most notably through the enactment of security legislation that largely expanded the activities of the Self-Defence Forces.