Japan decided Tuesday to pursue the deployment of aircraft carriers for the first time since the end of World War II and beef up its defense in new domains of warfare, such as cyberspace, under its new 10-year defense policy.
The latest national defense guidelines, which will enable Japan to modify helicopter carriers so they can launch U.S.-made F-35B fighter jets, were adopted as the government sees the security environment as increasing in uncertainty amid China’s expanding military activities and rapid advances in technology.
“We need to develop truly effective defense abilities, rather than simply expanding traditional ones,” the government said in the policy, which covers a period from fiscal 2019 and is endorsed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet. The policy was last updated in 2013.
In the new guidelines, the government says China’s military activities in the East China Sea and other surrounding waters are a source of “strong concern” in the region, while warning of China’s quest for military supremacy in space and the cyber domain, which could enable the country to disrupt command and control systems.
As part of its efforts to enhance the defense of islands in the Pacific Ocean and other areas where not many airfields exist, the government said it plans to upgrade Izumo-class flat-top helicopter carriers to enable it to transport and launch fighter jets, such as F-35Bs.
“We will refit Maritime Self-Defense Force multipurpose helicopter destroyers so fighter jets capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings can be deployed when necessary,” the government said in its new five-year midterm defense buildup program, which was endorsed along with the defense guidelines the same day.
The idea, however, has already been criticized by some defense experts who call it a deviation from the country’s self-defense policy under the pacifist Constitution.
In an apparent effort to reassure the public, the government has stipulated in the defense buildup program that it has no intention of possessing an offensive type of aircraft carrier deemed to exceed the constitutional limit.
“The planned modification to the Izumo-class carriers is to increase their applications,” Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya told a news conference after the guidelines were approved.
Given that the ships will not constantly carry fighters, their operations will be defensive in nature and will not violate the Constitution, Iwaya added.
The government has placed considerable emphasis on the need to address the fields of cyberspace, outer space and electronic warfare, saying in the guidelines that the areas have the potential to “fundamentally change the shape of national security,” which has so far mainly focused on conventional ground, sea and air domains.
Noting the increasing need for the country’s ground, maritime and air units to act flexibly across all kinds of domains, the government says it will aim to form a “multidimensional joint defense force.”
The Self-Defense Forces are also expected to drastically improve their cyberdefense capabilities, such as by possessing an ability to obstruct the enemy’s use of cyberspace when the nation is under attack, it says.
But it may require careful consideration for Japan to carry out such “counterattacks,” as the country restricts the use of force for self-defense to certain conditions in light of the Constitution.
Further complicating the issue is the lack of an established definition of cyberattacks internationally, and it is also believed to be difficult to identify the attacking source at an early stage.
Regarding outer space, where Japan is seen to be lagging behind other countries in the race to gain military superiority, a new unit will be created inside the Air Self-Defense Force to continuously monitor space and act for the nation’s defense.
The government also plans to invest in artificial intelligence technologies and underwater drones.
To achieve the latest Medium Term Defense Program, which covers a five-year period from fiscal 2019, the government says it expects to spend around ¥27.47 trillion, a record high.
The program includes a plan to purchase a total of 18 fighter jets — apparently to put them on Izumo-class carriers — and install two U.S.-developed land-based Aegis missile systems to counter the North Korean nuclear and missile threat.
The defense budget has been on the rise under the administration of Abe, who took office in 2012. For the next fiscal year starting in April, the Defense Ministry has requested another record-high budget of about ¥5.3 trillion, including around ¥235 billion in costs related to the acquisition of the Aegis Ashore system.
With Japan purchasing U.S. defense equipment mainly through the foreign military sales arrangement, the government says in the latest defense guidelines it will seek to “streamline” the process to procure the sophisticated armaments “efficiently.”
Japan has been under pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Buy American” policy. The foreign military sales arrangement is used by Washington to prevent sensitive military technology from leaking, but critics say it is making Japan buy equipment at an asking price that is extremely expensive.
To secure enough SDF personnel as the country’s overall population ages and birthrates decline, the government says in the guidelines it plans to raise the retirement age of members and more actively recruit women.
New defense guidelines and midterm buildup program
The following is the gist of the new National Defense Program Guidelines and the fiscal 2019-2023 midterm defense buildup program approved by the Cabinet on Tuesday. Japan:
- will upgrade Izumo-class helicopter carriers so that they can transport and launch fighter jets.
- will buy 18 F-35B fighter jets capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings.
- will beef up defense in new domains of warfare such as cyber and outer space.
- aims to build “multidimensional” defense capabilities for operations across various domains.
- expresses “strong concern” over China’s military activities.
- will install two land-based Aegis missile systems.
- will spend over ¥27 trillion — a record — in the five-year period.