Japan is considering transforming a helicopter destroyer into an aircraft carrier that can accommodate fighter jets, a government source said Tuesday, in what could be seen as a departure from the country’s strictly defense-oriented policy under its pacifist Constitution.
The remodeling of the helicopter carrier Izumo, operated by Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, is seen as indispensable if the country is to beef up its defense capabilities in the face of China’s maritime assertiveness in the waters around the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
The government plans to state its policy of renovating a destroyer so it can carry fighter jets in the defense buildup guidelines to be updated next month, the source said.
Currently the MSDF’s 19,500-ton Izumo is 248-meters long and can carry up to 14 helicopters.
Under the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution, Japan has maintained that it cannot possess attack aircraft carriers as it is only allowed to use force for self-defense.
However, Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya appeared positive Tuesday about upgrading Izumo to serve as an aircraft carrier.
“It’s desirable that it will be used for as many purposes as possible,” he said at a news conference.
If remodeled, the Izumo would likely carry F-35B stealth jet fighters, which are capable of conducting short-range and vertical take-off and landing.
Asked if the ministry will introduce F-35Bs or not, Iwaya said it is “now conducting studies” on that option.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which wants to revise the country’s pacifist Constitution, has called for an upgrade of the Izumo to use it as an aircraft carrier.
The LDP referred to such an aircraft carrier as a “multipurpose mother ship” in its report compiled in May.
Separately on Tuesday, the Nikkei business newspaper reported that the government is preparing to order another 100 F-35 fighters from the U.S. to replace some of its aging F-15s, citing unnamed sources.
A single F-35 costs more than ¥10 billion, meaning the additional order would exceed ¥1 trillion. Those F-35s would include both F-35As and F-35Bs, the Nikkei reported.
Currently, the Air-Self Defense Forces plans to procure 42 F-35As by fiscal 2024.
The government is now mulling the procurement plan partly because of U.S. President Donald Trump’s repeated calls for Tokyo to buy more American defense equipment, the Nikkei reported.
At present, Japan deploys about 200 F-15s, roughly half of which cannot be upgraded, according to the newspaper.
Meanwhile the government is set to carefully decide the details of “the mother ship,” including the purposes of its operations and its aircraft carrying capacity at ordinary times, so as to avoid it being regarded as an attack aircraft carrier, which exceeds the scope of Japan’s exclusively defense-oriented policy, sources said.
The carrier needs to have a deck resistant to the high heat caused by the takeoffs and landings of such fighters.
The government’s current view is that Japan is not allowed to possess attack aircraft carriers under the country’s pacifist Constitution.
The country needs to be assured that the envisaged carrier will operate within the range of its defense-oriented policy, a senior official of Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, said.