It’s official — Japan now has its first warship since World War II from which fixed-wing aircraft can operate.
The Defense Ministry announced Tuesday that it had confirmed the successful landing and departure of cutting-edge F-35B stealth fighter jets, operated by the U.S. Marines, from the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Izumo — technically a helicopter carrier — over the weekend after months of work to remodel the ship.
Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi announced the development at a regular news conference Tuesday, emphasizing that “it would contribute to improving interoperability between Japan and the United States.”
The Defense Ministry said the work on the Izumo had highlighted the allies’ close defense cooperation and would help deepen the U.S.-Japan alliance and strengthen deterrence, adding that it would continue to “steadily upgrade” the ship’s capabilities.
Japan has ordered 42 of the F-35Bs — a short-takeoff and vertical-landing (STOVL) aircraft — from the U.S., many of which are expected to be deployed to the Izumo and its sister ship, the Kaga.
“This trial has proved that the JS Izumo has the capability to support takeoffs and landings of STOVL aircraft at sea, which will allow us to provide an additional option for air defense in the Pacific Ocean in the near future,” said MSDF Rear Adm. Shukaku Komuta said in a statement.
3 OCT, the #JMSDF conducted verification of takeoff and landing of the USMC F-35B to JS #IZUMO.
The JMSDF continues to steadily carry out the necessary modifications to the IZUMO class to acquire the capability to operate the F-35Bs. pic.twitter.com/0gtPNzrxQC
— Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (@jmsdf_pao_eng) October 5, 2021
With Tuesday’s confirmation, the carrier appears to have broken a long-standing taboo in Japan’s postwar defense posture, leaving it unclear how or even if the Izumo’s upgrade will remain within the confines of the country’s long-standing “exclusively defense-oriented policy,” especially since the ship’s exact role has yet to be set out.
Japan’s pacifist Constitution has been interpreted as banning the ownership of weapons exceeding “the minimum required force” needed for self-defense. But the Izumo falls within this constitutional scope, senior Japanese officials have said.
The move has been widely seen by defense analysts as part of a concerted effort to respond to China’s growing maritime assertiveness in the waters and airspace near Japan.
Although the Defense Ministry has not publicly admitted as much, a senior ministry official told The Japan Times in 2019 that China’s growing military presence in the Western Pacific — including repeated passages through key “choke points” by its Liaoning aircraft carrier — was a key reason for the upgrade.
China, which has two aircraft carriers and is building a third, has responded to the move by playing down the Japanese carriers’ envisioned capabilities while also claiming that the move could prompt a return of Japanese militarism.
In order to make the Izumo capable of supporting F-35Bs, necessary modifications to its flight deck were completed over the summer. Among the changes were the addition of appropriate lighting and the application of a heat-resistant coating. The F-35B’s STOVL capabilities mean that its exhaust nozzle often ends up pointing straight at the flight deck, potentially resulting in heat damage to ships that are not treated.
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