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Panel OKs using Izumo-class vessels as aircraft carriers with some F-35B jet deployment

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

TOKYO -- A working team of the ruling coalition parties approved in principle on Dec. 11 the government's drafts for the new National Defense Program Guidelines and the Mid-term Defense Program that incorporated the conversion of the Izumo-class helicopter carriers into vessels with the capabilities of aircraft carriers with a limited deployment of F-35B stealth fighters.

The limitation on carrying the state-of-the-art jets, which would be deployed on those ships "when needed," was introduced in response to concerns shown by junior coalition partner Komeito about the ships becoming "attack aircraft carriers." Possessing such equipment is banned by the current government interpretation of the war-renouncing Constitution. Government officials explained at a meeting of the working team in charge of overseeing defense policy that the arrangement will ensure to steer clear of the ban.

Turning the Izumo-class vessels effectively into aircraft carriers is intended to strengthen Japan's air defense against China's maritime expansion. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has proposed making the Izumo-class vessels into "multi-role operation mother ships" but Komeito expressed constitutional concerns about the conversion, and the ruling bloc working team had postponed approving the draft defense programs three times.

In the draft defense guidelines presented to the working team on Dec. 11, the government wrote that the converted ships will not always carry F-35Bs with short or vertical takeoff and landing capabilities, and "make it possible to operate the jets from existing vessels when necessary." By limiting the operation of those vessels as aircraft carriers, government officials say "the ships cannot be called aircraft carriers and their capabilities will be confined within the bounds of Japan's exclusively defense-oriented posture."

Although Komeito gave the green light to the government's plan on condition that those limitations are put down in writing, concerns still remain that the new ships will go beyond Japan's postwar policy of focusing on self-defense.

Earlier on Dec. 11, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a meeting of a government-organized panel of experts on national security and defense capabilities that he intends to strengthen a system of "defending the lives of our people and our territorial land and waters on our own initiative amid drastic changes in the national security environment." The panel, headed by Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. honorary chairman Akio Mimura, also approved the draft national defense guidelines.

The proposed guidelines and mid-term program call for the introduction of unmanned submarines to improve the country's constant monitoring capabilities of waters around Japan. They also incorporated the development of "capabilities to prevent the use of cyberspace by adversaries in contingencies" into the drafts.

The government intends to get Cabinet approval of the drafts on Dec. 18.

(Japanese original by Noriaki Kinoshita, Political News Department)

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