National / Politics

Japan's next SDF mission to Mideast may include its biggest warships

Kyodo, Staff Report

The next Self-Defense Forces dispatch to the Middle East might get Cabinet approval by the end of the year, government sources said, as Tokyo considered deploying one of its biggest warships.

For the information-collection mission, which is independent of the U.S.-led one to protect shipping in the area, Japan will divert one of its two P-3C planes patrolling the Gulf of Aden for pirates off Somalia, the sources said Sunday.

It is also considering deploying a helicopter carrier, since its Aegis destroyers for intercepting ballistic missiles are guarding against North Korean threats around Japan.

In October, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe directed officials to plan to deploy more SDF vessels and planes to the Mideast. The government began looking for a mission that could be classified as “survey and research” activities, which do not require Cabinet approval.

What exactly “survey and research” activities consist of remains unclear, but the two ruling parties will seek Cabinet approval to clarify the details of the mission, such as its objectives and exit strategy, because Komeito, the junior partner in the coalition led by Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, is cautious about the plan.

Approval could be delayed depending on the discussions with Komeito.

Sending the SDF overseas is a sensitive issue because entanglement in foreign conflicts could violate war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution.

The LDP-Komeito talks could face additional headwinds over any plan to deploy one of Japan’s two Izumo-class helicopter carriers to the Middle East. Sending the controversial naval vessels, Japan’s largest, to the region could be seen by critics as unnecessary — and constitutionally questionable — muscle-flexing.

As part of what is likely to be a record-setting defense budget, the Defense Ministry will begin upgrading the helicopter carrier Izumo next year to enable it to carry fighter jets.

That 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 plans to remodel the Izumo so it can carry U.S.-made, state-of-the-art F-35B stealth fighters, turning it into a de facto aircraft carrier.

Experts say the conversion of the Izumo-class vessels, including the Kaga, is primarily aimed at keeping an increasingly assertive China in check.

The Gulf of Oman, the northern part of the Arabian Sea and the eastern part of the Bab el-Mandeb strait between Djibouti and Yemen that links the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, are considered potential destinations for the mission.

Japan is under pressure to join a U.S.-led coalition to protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic sea lane through which around a fifth of the world’s oil passes, but is reluctant to do as it might damage Tokyo’s friendly ties with Tehran.