National / Politics

Journalists get tour of Japan's Izumo amid debate over equipping ship with aircraft carrier capabilities

by Sakura Murakami

Staff Writer

Journalists on Wednesday were given a guided tour of the Izumo — Japan’s largest flat-topped helicopter carrier — for the first time since the Defense Ministry revealed a controversial plan late last year to convert it so that it could handle fixed-wing aircraft — which critics and some opposition lawmakers say could make it capable of offensive operations.

The pacifist postwar Constitution bans the possession of “attack aircraft carriers,” and calls for an exclusively defense-oriented posture. However, under a five-year defense build-up plan adopted in December, the 248-meter, 19,500-ton vessel will be undergoing a major remodeling to accommodate jet fighters, likely U.S.-developed F-35B stealth planes, which are capable of short take-offs and vertical landings.

The Defense Ministry has refused to call a remodeled Izumo “an aircraft carrier,” saying it would not regularly carry jet fighters and would also be used for missions including anti-submarine missions and rescue operations.

“My understanding is that aircraft carriers are designed specifically for the operation of aircraft only, like U.S. aircraft carriers,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in mid-February at a Lower House budget committee meeting. “The Izumo is not designed for this purpose, and therefore is not an aircraft carrier.”

According to the ministry’s definition, “attack aircraft carriers” are those “to be used only for the carrying out of missions of mass destruction in other countries.” A remodeled Izumo would not fall within this category and thus would not be unconstitutional, according to the ministry.

Following the 2016 Kumamoto earthquakes, the Izumo was used to transport over 300 ground self-defense force troops to central Kyushu for disaster relief.

In the press tour on Wednesday, MSDF officers guided reporters around the Izumo, docked at the Yokosuka base in Kanagawa Prefecture, including a 170-meter-long cavernous hangar that experts say can accommodate about 10 F-35B fighters and two anti-submarine patrol helicopters.

The reporters were also allowed access to the ship’s deck, complete with its two gigantic elevators designed to carry aircraft that can weigh up to 30 tons from the hangar below.

Designed for a crew of up to 470, the Izumo can travel up to a speed of 30 knots.

The ship also accommodates a medical room with 34 makeshift beds and an ICU.

When asked, MSDF officials declined to comment on the details of the planned remodeling, saying officers operating the ship are not in a position to do so.

Still, at a Lower House meeting on defense issues held Friday, Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya didn’t deny the possibility that U.S. fighter jets may be allowed to land on the Izumo for refueling before launching attacks.

“Legally speaking, that sort of scenario is possible, so I’m not going to outright deny that it’s a possibility,” he said in response to a question from Toru Miyamoto, a lawmaker with the Japanese Communist Party.

“So you’re saying it’s legally possible for a F-35B from the U.S. military to take off for an attack from Izumo — doesn’t this mean that the remodeled Izumo will be an ‘attack’ aircraft carrier, something banned under the Constitution?” Miyamoto asked Iwaya during the session.

The defense minister denied Miyamoto’s suggestion, saying that providing fuel to U.S. planes would not be considered a “use of force” situation with offensive intentions by Japan, thus would not violate the Constitution.

Some experts also say carrying out viable offensive attack operations would be difficult from the Izumo as it can only support about 10 F-35B fighters.

According to the five-year defense plan, the changes to the Izumo’s capabilities will raise the “overall improvement of anti-air defenses” in the airspaces over the Pacific Ocean and elsewhere in the waters around Japan.

This story was corrected on April 15 to reflect the actual displacement of the Izumo, which is 19,500 tons.