Japan’s ruling party is officially calling for Tokyo to return to the aircraft carrier business.
On May 25, the Liberal Democratic Party—the party of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—finalized proposals calling for the country to refit its massive helicopter destroyers so that they can carry fixed-wing aircraft, according to a number of local Japanese news outlets. “The party plans to submit the proposals to the government by the end of this month at the earliest, hoping that they will be reflected in the country’s defense program guidelines and medium-term defense program to be revised at year-end,” one news article said.
The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) first hinted it was going in that direction when it released an outline of the proposal in March of this year. At that time, the proposal called for refitting one or both of Japan’s Izumo-class amphibious assault ships to be “a multipurpose defensive aircraft carrier.” Apparently, some members of the LDP objected to this wording since it evoked memories of World War II when Imperial Japan had a potent carrier fleet. Thus, the new proposal now calls the refitted vessels a multipurpose “mother ship.” The concept is still the same.
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As the National Interest previously noted, Japan’s massive Izumo-class helicopter destroyers could potentially be refitted to carry the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter. That is the U.S. Marines’ version of the F-35 that has short take-off and vertical landing capability. The possibility of this happening was something many observers speculated about when the first Izumo ship was unveiled in 2013. At that time, some began to call it an “aircraft carrier in disguise.” It wasn’t difficult to see why: the Izumos are roughly 250 meters (820 feet) long and displace twenty-four thousand tons. That makes them about 50 percent bigger (in terms of displacement) than Japan’s previously largest ship, the Hyuga-class helicopter destroyer. Others have pointed out that the ships are actually larger than Spain and Italy’s short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft carriers. The Izumos were also built with a hanger that can handle fixed-wing aircraft.
Still, Japan has consistently tried to tamp down those expectations. When reports emerged last December that Tokyo was seriously considering refitting the Izumos to carry the F-35B, Japanese defense minister Itsunori Onodera offered an (admittedly half hearted) denial. “Regarding our defense posture, we are constantly conducting various examinations. But no concrete examination is under way on the introduction of F-35B or remodeling of Izumo-class destroyers,” Onodera said, local media reported. He added, however, that “there is a need to always be considering various alternatives.”
Despite that denial, Japan’s Ministry of Defense commissioned a study from the Japanese shipbuilder Marine United Corporation about whether the Izumos could really be converted into an aircraft carrier. A redacted form of that study was released publicly in late April of this year. Unsurprisingly, it found that such a refit was possible without enormous modifications such as a catapult launcher.
The whole exercise was rather disingenuous, however, as former Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) executives say that this was the plan all along. Speaking to The Asahi Shimbun in February, one explained that at the time the service was deciding to build the vessels: “a consensus was reached privately among the MSDF that the Izumo should be considered for conversion into an aircraft carrier. But the MSDF couldn't explain the need publicly due to the government’s view that aircraft carriers capable of launching large-scale attacks are equivalent to the military capability prohibited by the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution.”
Of course, the LDP’s proposal hinges on Japan acquiring the F-35B. Currently, Tokyo is only purchasing the F-35A, which is the conventional take-off and landing variant. But the LDP proposal that calls for refitting the Izumos also calls for purchasing the F-35B from the United States. Currently, only a few services have signed onto buy the F-35B, including the U.S. Marines, British Royal Navy, British Royal Air Force and Italian Navy. Other countries like South Korea and perhaps Turkey have expressed interest in the F-35B as part of their own interest in transforming amphibious assault ships into aircraft carriers. If Tokyo goes forward with plans to transform the Izumos into F-35B carriers, this could have a profound influence on what at least South Korea does and perhaps Turkey as well.
The LDP proposal made a number of other potentially controversial proposals. For starters, it called for scrapping the informal prohibition on spending more than one percent of Japan’s Gross Domestic Product on defense. Instead, it wants to bring defense spending up to the two percent goal set by NATO members. Of arguably greater importance, the LDP proposal reportedly calls for acquiring an ability to strike foreign adversary bases and other installations as well as building cruise missiles. Tokyo has not developed a strike capability since this was viewed as offensive in nature and because it has committed itself to maintaining a purely self-defensive force.
Zachary Keck (@ZacharyKeck) is a former managing editor of the National Interest.
Image: Wikimedia Commons