Japan's Maritime Self Defense Forces helicopter carrier Izumo sails out from Yokosuka Base. Photo: AFP
Japan's Maritime Self Defense Forces helicopter carrier Izumo sails out from Yokosuka Base. Photo: AFP

Japan may soon face the sticky task of defining the difference between a “defensive aircraft carrier” and an “offensive” one.

The Asahi Shimbun noted in a year-end analysis that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is mulling a proposal to convert the Izumo, a Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter carrier, into a full-blown aircraft carrier by having F-35B fighters operate from its flight deck.

The F-35B is the vertical takeoff (VTOL), maritime version of the American stealth fighter that Japan is considering purchasing from the US.

The proposal to deploy F-35Bs on the Izumo is included in possible changes to National Defense Program Guidelines that will be finalized by Japan’s government latter this year.

Constitutional hurdle

A major stumbling block is that Japan’s constitution, in its current form, prohibits the country from possessing “offensive weapons” such as aircraft carriers. Abe is trying to amend Article 9 of the post-war document to give the military a freer hand in dealing with threats from North Korea and China.

But the aircraft carrier designation remains politically sensitive. The Izumo, the largest warship built by Japan since World War II, is still officially categorized as a destroyer, though it is in all respects a small aircraft carrier.

Asahi says one way to circumvent the hubbub is to define the Izumo as a defensive aircraft carrier that will be used to guard the Senkaku Islands (called Diaoyu by China). The tiny island chain in the East China Sea is claimed by both China and Japan and has been the scene of saber-rattling between the two countries.

The Izumo must reportedly be refitted if the F-35B plan is approved. That’s because its current flight deck was built for helicopters and needs the addition of heat-resistant surfacing to cope with the engine blasts from VTOL fighters.

Officials downplay idea

Japan’s Defense Agency is soft-pedaling notions that that Izumo will be retrofitted or equipped with F-35Bs.

At a December 26 news conference, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera denied that consideration was being given to acquiring F-35Bs as well as retrofitting the Izumo.

But he also left the door open to future possibilities. “There is a need to always be considering various alternatives,” Onodera said.

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