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Proposal to convert MSDF's Izumo into aircraft carrier surfaces at Defense Ministry

In this May 1, 2017 file photo, the Japanese helicopter carrier Izumo departs the Maritime Self-Defense Force's Yokosuka base in Kanagawa Prefecture to rendezvous with a U.S. Navy supply ship off the Boso Peninsula. (Mainichi)

The regular review of Japan's National Defense Program Guidelines is fast approaching, and attention is likely to be focused on the Self-Defense Forces' offensive strike capability.

Within the Defense Ministry, there is even a proposal circulating to convert the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF)'s Izumo helicopter carrier into a regular aircraft carrier. The idea is unlikely to be adopted, as it would risk shaking the foundations of Japan's defense-only policy. However, discussions on how best to prepare the SDF with defense capabilities have heated up noticeably within the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as China continues to emerge as a major military power and North Korea forges ahead with its ballistic missile and nuclear arms programs.

The current National Defense Program Guidelines were approved by the Cabinet in 2013, along with the five-year "Mid-term Defense Program" plan specifying equipment acquisition priorities. The guidelines will expire in mid-2020.

The proposal to convert the Izumo into a true aircraft carrier apparently emerged primarily from among the Defense Ministry's uniformed personnel, taking advantage of Prime Minister Abe's policy of reviewing both the defense program outline and midterm defense buildup plan. One source linked to the ministry told the Mainichi Shimbun that deploying an aircraft carrier "would guarantee a base for combat aircraft operations in case a foreign nation took over airports on (Japan's) island territories." The ministry also looks to possibly deploy an aircraft carrier in the seas around the Nansei Islands stretching between Kyushu and Taiwan, including Okinawa.

The Izumo, however, is a very different vessel from purpose-built aircraft carriers like the U.S. Navy's USS Ronald Reagan or China's Liaoning. The MSDF has two Izumo-class helicopter carriers, and two main proposals to convert them into true aircraft carriers have emerged within the Defense Ministry: replacing the flight deck to allow fixed-wing combat aircraft operations, or acquiring F-35B fighters -- the same type of stealth jets as those used by the U.S. Marine Corps. Unlike F-35As, the version also in use in the U.S. Air Force that the Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) is set to introduce, the ability of the F-35B to operate from short runways makes it carrier-capable.

Discussion on converting helicopter carriers and acquiring F-35Bs gathered strength with the appointment last summer of Itsunori Onodera as defense minister. Onodera was a core member of a ruling Liberal Democratic Party policy review team that recommended to the government in March last year that Japan acquire the capability to strike enemy bases. At a recent end-of-year news conference, Onodera denied that the government was currently considering an aircraft carrier for the MSDF, but added that "it is necessary to consider various options."

However, it has long been the government's position that Japan cannot own an aircraft carrier -- along with its first-strike capabilities -- under the country's defense-only policy. The same would likely hold true for converting the Izumo to carry fighter planes. The idea of calling a converted Izumo a "defense-type aircraft carrier" has been floated at the Defense Ministry, but one senior ministry official told the Mainichi, "The idea of getting aircraft carriers comes up every time the defense program outline and midterm defense buildup plan are reviewed, but the proposal is always dismissed."

Aircraft carriers are not the only hot topic at the Defense Ministry, whose fiscal 2018 draft budget appropriations include items related to long-range cruise missiles for the ASDF. To prevent the fighters carrying these weapons from being targeted by anti-aircraft missiles, there are also rumors of a proposal to acquire electronic warfare planes capable of jamming or knocking out enemy radar stations with electromagnetic waves. However, like aircraft carriers, such planes could be used for strikes on enemy bases, and for Japan to acquire any offensive weaponry risks violating the country's defense-only stance, which is itself grounded in the pacifist Constitution.

The ASDF currently flies electronic reconnaissance aircraft, but no planes capable of electronic warfare attacks. However, costs related to adding cruise missiles -- one U.S. model with a range of 900 kilometers, and one developed by a consortium led by Norway with a range of 500 kilometers -- to the ASDF's arsenal are already in the budget draft for next fiscal year.

The Defense Ministry claims that the missiles are "equipment for the defense of Japan including its island territories." However, it remains a fact that they could be repurposed to strike enemy facilities. If, for the sake of argument, they were to be so used, then electronic warfare aircraft would be needed to allow the missiles to slip through an enemy's air defenses and reach their targets. Regarding such aircraft, one government-related source told the Mainichi, "There are indeed some figures calling for Japan to acquire them."

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