Photo/IllutrationThe helicopter carrier Izumo sails off the coast of the Boso Peninsula. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Successive administrations have vowed that the Self-Defense Forces would never possess "offensive" weapons, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles, long-range strategic bombers and aircraft carriers, which would fly in the face of the nation's exclusively defensive posture.

Now, the Abe Cabinet will have to deploy a new mantra if it converts the Maritime SDF's Izumo helicopter carrier into a full-fledged aircraft carrier packing F-35B fighter jets, which have advanced stealth capabilities.

Several high-ranking Defense Ministry officials said that consideration was being given to converting the Izumo, which is already Japan's largest destroyer, with a length of 248 meters and a horizontal flight deck like those on aircraft carriers.

When the Izumo was added to the MSDF fleet in 2015, Air SDF officers asked that consideration be given to acquiring F-35Bs for use on the vessel, which would make it the only aircraft carrier in the fleet.

However, that discussion did not proceed because of concerns that it would conflict with Japan's defense policy stance. There were also worries at that time that acquiring stealth fighters could further aggravate strained relations with China.

But with Defense Ministry officials now reviewing the National Defense Program Guidelines and compiling a new Mid-Term Defense Program by the end of 2018, discussion again extended to the possibility of retrofitting the Izumo.

One proposal is to have the Izumo serve as a "defensive aircraft carrier" with the mission of the defense of outlying islands, such as the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

One possibility of refitting the Izumo would be to increase the heat resistance of its flight deck to allow the F-35Bs to land vertically on the carrier. The new plan would also include the ASDF purchasing F-35Bs for the carrier.

Defense Ministry officials acknowledge the difficulty of setting a clear line in defining the difference between a defensive and offensive aircraft carrier. For that reason, ministry officials might not even call the refitted Izumo an aircraft carrier, but use entirely different terminology when they set sail with the new version.

A conclusion is expected by summer 2018 after ministry officials consult with officials in the prime minister's office.

At a Dec. 26 news conference, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera denied that consideration was being given to acquiring F-35Bs as well as retrofitting the Izumo.

However, he added, "There is a need to always be considering various alternatives."

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has approved the purchase of new weapons that blur the line between defense and offensive weapons.

Related expenses will be included in the fiscal 2018 budget to consider the acquisition of long-range cruise missiles. Although Defense Ministry officials claim the objective of those missiles would not be to have first-strike capability against enemy missile bases, their range is up to 900 kilometers.