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Japan to introduce 'aircraft carriers' to counter China; defense role to be emphasized

This May 2017 file photo shows the Maritime Self-Defense Force's Izumo helicopter carrier at sea. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The Japanese government will aim to convert the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF)'s Izumo-class helicopter carriers into vessels capable of operating fighter jets, according to people familiar with the move.

The upgrade plan will apparently be incorporated into the nation's new defense guidelines to be finalized by mid-December, according to the individuals.

The plan would effectively add aircraft carriers to Japan's arsenal for the first time since World War II. The converted Izumo vessels would carry F-35B stealth jets and other aircraft with short-distance takeoff and landing capabilities. The ships will be deployed to defend the country's remote southwestern islands and counter China's maritime expansion into the Pacific Ocean and other waters.

The two 248-meter-long Izumo-class ships are the largest vessels in the MSDF fleet, with each currently capable of carrying 14 helicopters.

The government is likely to emphasize the defensive purpose of the conversion plan, as possessing aircraft carriers has faced criticism that it is a diversion from Japan's postwar national security policy of focusing solely on the defense of its own territory.

This posture will be reflected in the naming and assigned roles of the upgraded ships, to be determined by the government and the ruling camp. The governing Liberal Democratic Party proposed in May to introduce "multi-role operation mother ships." In the past, the government has told the Diet that acquiring an "attack aircraft carrier" is "not acceptable."

Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya told a Nov. 27 news conference, "It is desirable for the important equipment (the helicopter carriers) to have many roles," indicating his support for the upgrade plan. Regarding compilation of the next set of defense guidelines, which will chart the nation's defense policy for the next several years, Iwaya said he would consult with the ruling camp and a government panel of experts.

The Izumo conversion plan is rooted in Japan's worries about China's military buildup at sea. The government's 2018 defense white paper explained that China has acquired aircraft carriers to build capacity to conduct operations in waters far from its shores. "We must improve our defense capabilities in the face of China," said an individual linked to the Defense Ministry.

There is also a plan to add a third aircraft carrier on top of the two converted Izumo-class ships, so that at least one ship would always be operational when the other two were either undergoing maintenance or repair, according to the individual.

(Japanese original by Noriaki Kinoshita, Political News Department)

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