The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Izumo-class helicopter destroyer
The Japanese Government is formalizing its operation of aircraft carriers – seen as a leading form of offensive weaponry – through an amendment to its National Defense Program Guidelines, which set the general framework for its defense policy. While Tokyo claims the aircraft carriers and other offensive weaponry are intended for defensive use, the direction of its changes to the guidelines point to a clear desire to develop Japan into a major military power.
With National Defense Program Guidelines scheduled for announcement in mid-December, the Japanese government submitted an outline for them on Dec. 5 to a government-affiliated expert committee and the ruling coalition, the Nikkei newspaper reported. While the guidelines are normally amended every 10 years, the Shinzo Abe administration is attempting to revise them just five years after the last amendment in 2013, citing the North Korea threat.
The outline for the new guidelines stressed a need for “fighter aircraft with short-range takeoff and vertical landing capabilities to strengthen defense in the Pacific Ocean surrounding Japan.” The “fighter aircraft with short-range takeoff and vertical land capabilities” in question is a reference to Lockheed Martin’s F35B stealth fighter, which is used on US amphibious assault ships.
In connection with this, the Japanese government is also converting its Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Izumo-class helicopter destroyer into a VSTOL (vertical and/or short take-off and landing) aircraft carrier. Speaking about the conversion in a Nov. 27 press conference, Minister of Defense Takeshi Iwaya said it would be “preferable to use the equipment that we finally possess for as many different purposes as possible” – signaling Tokyo’s intent to acquire an aircraft carrier through its destroyer’s conversion and the introduction of fighter aircraft to use with it.
The number of F35B aircraft to be acquired has been suggested at around 20. JMSDF’s current Izumo-class helicopter destroyers, the Izumo and Kaga, currently carry helicopters.
The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) plan includes an opinion calling for the acquisition of 40 F35B aircraft as well. Japan’s acquisition of its first aircraft carrier since the end of World War II appears intended for long-range operations in areas including the South China Sea, where China is currently asserting territorial rights. China is currently building its third aircraft carrier.
Currently used by US Forces Japan, the F35B would be capable of taking off from and landing on the Izumo after its conversion to an aircraft carrier – marking another step in the military integration of the US and Japan. While the Japanese government insists its position barring the possession of aircraft carriers for offensive use remains unchanged, observers have suggested even the Japanese public is unlikely to buy into aircraft carriers being described as “defensive.”
The National Defense Program Guidelines also included plans for the additional acquisition of two types of F35. The F35B is to be used by JMSDF, while the F35A, which uses a regular runway, is to be used by the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF). Noting that the acquisition of 42 F35 aircraft is proceeding after a purchasing decision by the Japanese government in 2011, Jiji Press reported that the new system would have 140 total F35 aircraft once the purchase of an addition 100 is finalized.
Plans to develop state-of-the-art missiles
Also included in the outline for the new guidelines by Tokyo were plans for the development and positioning of state-of-the-art missiles, including high-speed gliding bombs and hypersonic guided missiles capable of traveling at speeds of Mach 5 and faster. The use of hypersonic weapons exceeding Mach 5 stands to complicate radar tracking and render interception missiles ineffective; development efforts are also under way by the US and Russia.
High-speed gliding bombs also travel at speeds faster than sound, with an irregular flight pattern that makes them difficult to shoot down. The bombs achieve firing ranges upwards of 300 km. While Japan has claimed its aim to be defense of peripheral island regions, the costly and advanced weaponry appear to go beyond what would be needed for island defense. The Japanese government also plans to include measures for strengthened space, cyber, and electromagnetic wave defense when it amends its National Defense Program Guidelines.
Abe administration still adopting stance of “defense capabilities
Even after the guidelines have been amended, the Japanese government does not plan to declare itself as having the “capabilities to attack enemy bases.” The LDP has tried to downplay the significance of the aircraft carrier acquisition, describing the conversion efforts as intended for a “multi-purpose carrier” in its opinion to the Japanese government. But a critical editorial in the Asahi Shimbun argued, “To simply alter the terminology when [the Izumo’s conversion] would clearly be an aircraft carrier for all intents and purposes is to try to turn our attention from the essence of the issue.”
“This has happened a number of times now under the Abe administration,” the editorial complained.
Many observers have responded to Japan’s adoption of long-range offensive weapons for “defense purposes” with concerns that it is gutting its principle of only exercising defensive capabilities at a minimum level in situations where it has been attacked.
By Cho Ki-weon, Tokyo correspondent
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