YOKOSUKA, KANAGAWA PREF. - Rarely have Maritime Self-Defense Force ships garnered this much attention.
On April 30, the Izumo helicopter carrier — one of Japan’s two largest and arguably most controversial naval vessels — set off for a three-month deployment and this month it conducted two quadrilateral naval exercises over a two-week span — first in the South China Sea and then in the Indian Ocean.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump are scheduled to inspect the Kaga — the other vessel in the Izumo-class — in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.
On top of that, “Aircraft Carrier Ibuki,” a military thriller based on a manga series of the same name featuring a fictitious, though strikingly similar vessel to the Izumo ships, hits theaters on Friday.
The rising profile of the 19,500-ton flat-topped helicopter carriers is perhaps a reflection of the increasing awareness of the ministry’s future plans for the vessels: Their conversion into de facto aircraft carriers with the apparent purpose of keeping China in check.
Last December, the Abe administration included plans to remodel its Izumo-class vessels so they can carry F-35B stealth fighters under the National Defense Guidelines and Medium-Term Defense Program.
Since their development nearly a decade ago, speculation had swirled among the defense community that the Izumo ships could eventually be upgraded to accommodate fixed-wing aircraft to effectively become aircraft carriers — a type of vessel that has long been taboo in Japan’s postwar defense posture.
But along with raising questions over whether the Izumo’s upgrade will remain within the confines of the country’s long-standing “exclusively defense-oriented policy,” there seems to be a lack of consensus about the exact role that’s being plotted for the upgraded ships, aside from countering China.
A response to China
It is widely believed the Izumo was developed in large part in response to China’s increasing maritime assertiveness, though the Defense Ministry hasn’t publicly admitted as much, likely due to diplomatic considerations.
But in an interview with The Japan Times last month, a senior Defense Ministry official bluntly laid out the goal for the Izumo upgrades.
The official pointed to a chart depicting where Chinese warships, submarines and military aircraft repeatedly advanced into the Western Pacific, crossing the waters between Okinawa and Miyako Island, in 2017 and 2018.
China’s emerging military presence in the Western Pacific — with forces that now include the aircraft carrier Liaoning, which is capable of carrying J-15 fighters — is a key reason Japan plans to upgrade the Izumo-class ships to allow them to carry F-35B stealth fighters, the senior Defense Ministry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We won’t publicly name any country, but the fact is that the Chinese navy has frequently made incursions into the Pacific Ocean by passing through the Miyako Strait,” the official said. “They’ve become increasingly active (in the Pacific) over the past five years.”
The Miyako Strait is regarded as a critical “choke point” among military analysts that the Chinese Navy must pass through if it ever wants to advance into the Pacific from coastal areas and become a full-fledged “blue-water” navy capable of sustained operations in open water.
The Constitution controversy
The Izumo modification plan, however, immediately caused a stir and drew mixed reactions from politicians and former MSDF brass.
Opposition lawmakers criticized the plan, arguing it would exceed the scope of military power the country is entitled to under the war-renouncing Constitution.
During an Upper House budget committee session in early February, Japanese Communist Party lawmaker Satoshi Inoue cited the top law in his criticism of the plan: “If the Izumo carries fighter planes, it would allow Japan to be able to stage an overwhelming attack from anywhere on the sea, wouldn’t it?”
In response, Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya argued that the upgraded Izumo-class vessels will not be designed for “the mass destruction of another country” and therefore they will be constitutional.
The Constitution has long been interpreted as banning Japan from owning any military power exceeding “the minimum required force” needed for self-defense. Since World War II, Japan has pledged not to own “offensive air carriers,” saying it would be beyond its exclusively defense-oriented posture.
But opponents of the plan argue the upgrade to the Izumo ships will allow the SDF to acquire offensive capabilities.
In the face of that criticism, the Defense Ministry refuses to refer to the to-be-revamped Izumo ships as aircraft carriers, instead saying they would each serve as a “multirole operation vessel.” The ministry insists they would not regularly carry fixed-wing fighters and would also be used for missions including anti-submarine and rescue operations.
Battle-ready or not?
Meanwhile, senior Defense Ministry officials and former MSDF officers are confused about the plan’s operational objectives.
A key question is whether upgraded Izumo-class vessels can actually be deployed for practical combat operations, or if the objective is to mainly showcase the country’s military presence.
That is because typically, an effective aircraft carrier fleet requires a rotation of more than three such vessels. “Usually you would need at least three vessels; one for actual deployment, one for training and one docked for maintenance,” a senior Defense Ministry official said.
Japan has no current plans to build more Izumo-class ships, which can cost as much as ¥120 billion each.
So if it has only one aircraft carrier on standby, the vessels would merely end up being ships to show off the “presence” of Japan’s naval force, the official said.
Japan would need at least four Izumo vessels if they were to be used as aircraft carriers in real naval combat operations, said Toshiyuki Ito, a retired MSDF vice admiral who is now a professor at Kanazawa Institute of Technology Toranomon Graduate School in Tokyo.
“If you only have two vessels, you can only use them for training personnel for taking off and landing operations,” Ito said. “So this plan doesn’t make sense for MSDF officers, frankly speaking.”
Ito also pointed out that MSDF officers would usually envision using an aircraft carrier of this class for fleet air defense. But a remodeled Izumo-class vessel is only capable of carrying about 10 F-35B fighters, which Ito says is too small a number to provide effective and adequate air defense for a naval fleet.
Because Japan would need more Izumo-class vessels and for those ships to be able to carry more fighter jets in order to be useful in combat operations, Ito concluded that the Izumo upgrade plan is not intended for actual naval combat, but merely to “send a message to China.”
“In 10 or 15 years, China will have four aircraft carriers and two of them could cruise around the Pacific Ocean right south of Japan, for example,” Ito said.
A political decision
Retired Vice Adm. Yoji Koda, former commander of a MSDF fleet, argued that the biggest problem regarding the Izumo’s upgrade is that the Defense Ministry made the decision without having military experts conduct sufficiently detailed naval combat simulations.
“A defense build-up program must be based on the assumption that those (weapons) can actually be used in an emergency situation,” Koda said. “Just showing off (a military presence) is not a legitimate way of thinking.”
In fact, in announcing the new National Defense Guidelines last December, Iwaya, the defense minister, admitted that the Izumo conversion plan was not based on requests or proposals from Self-Defense Forces leaders, but was adopted based on a top-down decision among high-ranking government officials.
“This way of thinking was not formed because of specific needs or requests from the MSDF or Air Self-Defense Force. We reached this conclusion after conducting studies from defense policy perspectives,” Iwaya told reporters.
Koda, like Ito, argued that Japan needs aircraft carriers capable of defending an MSDF fleet — but also noted that the government must be clear and transparent about the purpose of introducing such vessels if and when it intends to do so.
And is Japan getting enough bang for its buck by upgrading the Izumo class? The cost not only includes the upgrading fees for the ships; it also involves procurement fees for the F-35Bs, as well as training dozens of ASDF fighter pilots to be able to fly the state-of-the-art stealth fighters.
In December, the government decided to procure 147 F-35 stealth fighters, 42 of which are now expected to be F-35Bs capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings.
The remaining 105 will be land-based F-35A jet fighters for the ASDF. Each F-35A fighter costs more than ¥10 billion, and the procurement plan for F-35As and F-35Bs is likely to exceed ¥1 trillion.
The MSDF has been suffering from a chronic personnel shortage due to its tough working conditions and long periods of deployment, Ito said. Recruitment is expected to become a bigger headache as the nation’s population continues to shrink. “What the MSDF really needs is more investment to build smaller ships that require fewer personnel (to operate),” Ito said.
“I had hoped that the government would allocate more budget to address personnel issues, but that ship has sailed.”