Japan to spend more on defense, refit first aircraft carrier
Japan plans its first aircraft carrier and big increases in defense spending and weapons capability in the coming years, according to new defense guidelines approved in mid-December 2018 that cite its need to counter potential threats from North Korea and China and other vulnerabilities.
The guidelines approved at a meeting of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet call for refitting an existing helicopter carrier into a ship that can deploy expensive, U.S.-made F-35B stealth fighters capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings. Japan plans to buy 147 F-35s, including 42 F-35Bs, over the next decade.
The guidelines would replace the current defense plan halfway through its intended lifespan and underscore Abe’s push to expand Japan’s military role and capability to make it, as he puts it, “a normal country.” He has long wanted to revise Japan’s U.S.-drafted constitution that renounces war and has already broadened the concept of self-defense to allow Japanese personnel to defend allied military forces as Japan increasingly works alongside U.S. Troops.
Defense officials say Japan needs higher deterrence and increased missile defense and fighter capability as North Korea’s missile and nuclear threats remains unchanged in the absence of concrete steps to dismantle them, and China’s maritime activity has grown increasingly assertive. The new guidelines say Japan needs to be well-prepared and to show it can withstand threats, noting the archipelago is prone to natural disasters and its coastline is dotted with vulnerable nuclear power plants.
Officials say the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s helicopter carrier Izumo, pictured, a 250-meter-long, flat-top destroyer that can carry 14 helicopters, is set to be refitted as an aircraft carrier. Japan has relatively little land on which to build runways long enough for conventional F-35s, and an aircraft carrier would be particularly useful in the western Pacific, where Japan tries to defend remote islands, including those disputed with China, and to play a greater role as part of the U.S.-Japan alliance.
A cost estimate for the refitted carrier wasn’t given. The work would be done over five years, and the ship would carry 10 stealth fighters. The refitting of a second helicopter carrier would follow.
The step is a major shift to Japan’s postwar naval defense, which has lacked aircraft carriers in part out of concerns that they may remind Japan’s Asian neighbors of aggression by Japan’s wartime Navy.
The guidelines say Japan needs to beef up its air defense capability in the Pacific, while expanding surveillance in the area. The Defense Ministry says Japan plans to purchase 105 conventional F-35s and 42 F-35Bs to replace some of its fleet of F-15s.
The big price tag for the jets — a F-35B costs about 10 billion yen (U.S. $90 million) — will drive up Japan’s defense spending, which has already climbed steadily for six straight years since Abe took office at the end of 2012. Japan plans to spend 235 billion yen (U.S. $2 billion) to buy a pair of land-fixed U.S. missile defense systems, Aegis Ashore, as well as other American missile interceptors.
The Cabinet, under the guidelines, also approved a new Medium Term Defense Program requiring a record five-year defense spending of 27 trillion yen (U.S. $240 billion) beginning in 2019, up more than 2 trillion yen (U.S. $17.6 billion) from an earlier five-year defense budget.