As part of what is likely to be a record-setting defense budget, the Defense Ministry will begin upgrading the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Izumo helicopter carrier next year to enable it to carry fighter jets.
The upgrade is in line with the National Defense Guidelines and the Medium-Term Defense Program for fiscal 2019 to 2023, which was adopted by the government in late 2018 and includes the plans to remodel the Izumo so that it can carry U.S.-made, state-of-the-art F-35B stealth fighters, becoming a de facto aircraft carrier.
The work is primarily aimed at reinforcing the heat resistance of the Izumo’s deck for landings and takeoffs by F-35B jets and is due to start in late fiscal 2019, which ends in March 2020, for completion during fiscal 2021.
For fiscal 2020, the ministry has requested a record budget of ¥5.32 trillion, marking the seventh consecutive year the budget request has increased. The sum includes ¥84.6 billion for purchasing six F-35Bs.
The MSDF will initially use F-35Bs from the U.S. Marine Corps to train Izumo crew members, as the delivery of the six fighters is not expected to start before fiscal 2024.
Also in the budget request, the ministry has asked for a total of ¥52.4 billion to strengthen the nation’s defense capabilities in outer space and cyberspace and other areas, including against electromagnetic waves. Specifically, the government plans to set up a “space operation unit” comprising around 20 members of the Air Self-Defense Forces to monitor suspicious movements against Japanese satellites.
Outer space will be a key area of defense in the future, even though Self-Defence Forces members won’t go there, a senior ASDF official said.
Speaking before top SDF officers, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that the planned evolution of the ASDF into a space unit cannot be dismissed as a “pipe dream.”
On the planned deployment of the U.S.-developed Aegis Ashore land-based missile defense system in the city of Akita, the ministry requested only ¥12.2 billion for the introduction of equipment to launch interceptor missiles, due to local opposition to the deployment plan. The ministry had used flawed data to explain the reasoning behind the Aegis plan.
Spending for the development of a new stealth fighter to succeed the ASDF’s F-2 jet, developed jointly by Japan and the United States, has been a controversial subject with regards to the ministry’s fiscal 2020 budget request.
The F-2s are set to be retired in stages from around 2035. The ministry has said it is difficult to include an amount for spending on an F-2 successor because the specifications for the new fighter, such as flight range and radar capability, remain undecided.
But the ministry was met with strong protests from ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers representing the defense community. Some of them said that, as engineers involved in the development of the F-2 will soon retire, they won’t be able to pass their know-how on to their younger colleagues, while others said Japanese companies will not invest in the development of an F-2 successor unless the ministry promptly clarifies its intention to develop one.
The lawmakers and the ministry eventually agreed not to specify a budget request figure and instead will earmark an amount for development when the government compiles its fiscal 2020 budget late this year.
The compromise shows “our political consideration for the domestic defense industry and the lawmakers representing it,” a senior ministry official said. “We have no other choice but to start setting aside development outlays wherever possible.”