Amid China’s increased maritime assertiveness, Japan plans to put fighter jets on its aircraft carriers for the first time since 1945

  • Upgrading helicopter carriers to transport warplanes risks being construed as a shift away from the country’s strictly defence-oriented policy
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2018, 6:08pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2018, 6:08pm

Japan plans to upgrade its helicopter carriers to transport and launch fighter jets as China becomes increasingly assertive in the waters around the East Asian archipelago.

On Tuesday, the country’s ruling parties approved new draft guidelines presented by the government that said Japan will “enable fighter jets to be operated from existing warships, if necessary, to improve the flexibility of their operation”.

Specifically, the government is looking to upgrade the Izumo, a flat-top destroyer that currently accommodates helicopters, in the face of China’s moves as well as to enhance its air defence capabilities in the Pacific Ocean where Japan has no bases.

However, transforming the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force warship into an aircraft carrier could draw criticism as it may be construed as a shift away from the country’s strictly defence-oriented policy.

Under Japan’s pacifist constitution, the government has maintained it cannot possess “attack aircraft carriers” as they are among what can be deemed offensive weapons exceeding what is necessary for self-defence.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito Party agreed on Tuesday to draft a statement to make sure the modified Izumo would fall within the scope of Japan’s exclusively defence-oriented policy.

The government has also indicated F-35B advanced stealth fighter jets will not be permanently deployed on the remodelled Izumo destroyer. F-35B fighter jets, which Japan plans to purchase in the next five years, are capable of short take-offs and vertical landings.

“The Izumo was originally designed as a multipurpose escort ship, so it wouldn’t pose any threat to other countries if fighter jets are deployed on it,” Defence Minister Takeshi Iwaya told reporters earlier in the day. He added the upgraded Izumo would not be an “attack aircraft carrier.”

The Izumo-class 19,500-tonne carriers are 248 metres long and can carry up to 14 helicopters. They are Japan’s largest post-war naval vessels.

The cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to endorse on December 18 the revised version of the National Defence Programme Guidelines, which set out Japan’s defence capability targets over a span of about 10 years, according to government sources.

The existing guidelines were updated in 2013, but Abe has ordered a review of the policy in the face of North Korea’s rapidly advancing nuclear and missile development programmes. The draft also calls for bolstering of Japan’s cyber defence capabilities.

Alongside the guidelines, Abe’s cabinet is set to adopt the Midterm Defence Programme, which specifies a five-year defence spending and procurement plan.