Japan Cites "Severity And Uncertainty" Of China Threat In Seeking Aircraft Carriers

Japan has announced that for the first time since World War II it is seeking aircraft carriers as part of a massive 5-year $242-billion military overhaul, primarily to counter what it perceives as a growing China threat, which is about $17.8 billion more than in an earlier defense budget.

Defense officials unveiled plans on Tuesday to refit its Izumo-class warships to carry US-designed F-35B fighter jets, an advanced stealth fighter it hopes to purchase over forty of within the next decade, which have short takeoff and vertical landing capabilities.

Japan's Izumo-class helicopter carrier, via Reuters

The stealth fighters will be deployable aboard two of Japan's largest ships, the JS Izumo and JS Kaga, which as flat-top ships more than 800 feet long and displacing 27,000 tons, can accommodate multiple fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. The ambitious defense overhaul, called the National Defense Program Guideline, was approved by Japan's parliament on Tuesday and cited the “severity and uncertainty” of challenges with regional great power China, which are “increasing with extremely high speed.”

The approved defense guideline further emphasized close US-Japanese strategic relations, which it described as “more important than ever for our national security,” and authorized Japan to actively support American military operations in the region. Japanese law was recently updated to allow its military to give logistical aid to US forces, and is now expanded to protecting US vessels and aircraft.

Readiness against the advancing technical capabilities of China were also noted in the defense guideline, which cited “Rapid expansion of new areas, such as space, cyber and electromagnetic waves, is fundamentally changing the ideal state of national security, which had placed importance on dealing with physical areas such as land, sea and air.”

In media statements, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga cited regional threats on Tuesday while outlining the plan: "Under the drastically changing security environment around Japan, the government will take all possible measures to protect the lives and assets of Japanese people." 

Defense officials also noted frequent foreign military activity in the East China Sea and western Pacific Ocean. And just this week Russia announced that it is continuing build-up on a series of islands claimed by Japan, which Moscow calls the Kuril Islands. 

Japan is now ahead of the UK as the biggest non-US buyer of the stealth fighter F-35 jets produced by Lockheed Martin.

Currently there are only two Japanese airbases which can be used by conventional fighter jets: Naha Air Base and the Maritime Self-Defense Force base on Iwo Jima. This has left Japanese military planners feeling unprepared as waters in the region grow hotter, especially in light of increased US-China confrontations and the potential for a wider confrontation. 

A defense officials told the AFP that new ships and fighter jets are set to “increase operational flexibility” for the military in terms of protecting remote Japanese islands, specifically in the southern waters. “We have a very, very small [military] footprint” in the area between Okinawa and Taiwan, the official said. Japan has denied that it's seeking “full-fledged aircraft carriers,” noting instead, “We are not creating carrier air wings or carrier air squadrons” like the US Navy, but that its future F-35B squadron would be primarily stationed on land.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has lately signaled Japan's readiness to abandon its 20th pacifism which was part of the terms of its defeat after WWII, citing emerging “threats” from China and North Korea. This has new orientation has been manifest in the controversial procurement and testing of Tomahawk cruise missiles purchased from the US, which has angered nearby powers Russia and China.