The government plans to include the introduction of “effective aircraft carriers” in the revised National Defense Program Guidelines despite concerns that the ships could violate the pacifist principles of the Constitution.

Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya on Nov. 27 revealed that the government will clearly state in the guidelines that it will remodel the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s 248-meter-long destroyer Izumo into an effective aircraft carrier.

“It’s desirable that the Izumo can be used for multiple purposes as much as possible,” Iwaya said in a news conference held after a Cabinet meeting.

The government will assert that the remodeled destroyer, on which U.S.-made F-35B fighters can make vertical landings and takeoffs, is needed to defend remote Japanese islands in the Pacific.

However, the introduction could hollow out Japan’s defense policy under the Constitution, which limits Japan’s security activities to defensive measures.

Past Cabinets have followed the view that Japan cannot possess “offensive aircraft carriers,” which go beyond the minimum need for self-defense.

But since aircraft carriers are called “moving air stations” and can operate fighter jets even in distant sea areas, they could be considered “offensive” in nature.

For that reason, the government wants to avoid referring to the remodeled destroyer as an “aircraft carrier.”

According to sources close to the Defense Ministry, the government in December plans to approve the revised National Defense Program Guidelines, which are expected to say, “The government will make considerations so that fixed-wing aircraft such as fighter jets can take off from and land on vessels.”

That passage will lead to the introduction of effective aircraft carriers in Japan’s defense policy, and full-fledged discussions are expected to follow.

The government plans to remodel the deck of the Izumo so that F-35B fighters can be loaded there.

Japan has only a few air stations that can be used to properly defend far-flung Pacific islands. The government plans to operate the remodeled Izumo as an alternative runway in case those existing air stations are destroyed.

Depending on the activities of the F-35B fighters, however, the operation of Izumo could go beyond the defensive limit under the Constitution, resulting in the Izumo becoming an offensive aircraft carrier.

At a meeting of the Upper House committee on diplomacy and defense on Nov. 27, Shinkun Haku, a lawmaker of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, asked the government about whether it plans to turn the Izumo into an aircraft carrier.

“The (government’s) consideration is not aimed at remodeling the Izumo into an aircraft carrier,” Iwaya said, denying the possibility that Japan could possess an offensive aircraft carrier.

However, he also said the international definition of an aircraft carrier “has yet to be established.”

Former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, who now heads the ruling parties’ working team on revising the guidelines, said in a lecture on Nov. 19 that Japan must monitor China as it strengthens its maritime advances.

“So far, (we have watched China’s moves) in the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea,” he said. “But from now on, we have to watch their moves in the Pacific.”

Komeito, the junior coalition partner of the Liberal Democratic Party, also voiced support for the government’s planned revisions to the defense guidelines.

“It’s necessary to make preparations (to defend islands in the Pacific),” a Komeito executive said.

The ruling parties will seek support from the public by explaining that the effective aircraft carriers will be part of measures to strengthen Japan’s defense capabilities.

However, many other hurdles must be overcome for the full-fledged introduction of effective aircraft carriers.

If such vessels are actually introduced, the MSDF will likely need three of them: one for duties, one that can be used if the other one is undergoing maintenance work, and one for training.

The MSDF currently has two Izumo-class destroyers: the Izumo and the Kaga.

Building another one would cost nearly 200 billion yen ($1.8 billion).

If F-35Bs are loaded on the vessels, the patrol helicopters that are currently loaded to monitor moves of Chinese submarines would have to be removed.

That could weaken surveillance activities instead of strengthening Japan’s defense capabilities.

“Personally, I’m absolutely against the remodeling of the destroyers into effective aircraft carriers,” an MSDF member said.

(This article was written by Shinichi Fujiwara and Hirotaka Kojo.)