Japan plans its first aircraft carrier and big increases in defence spending and weapons capability in the coming years, according to new defence guidelines approved on Tuesday that cite the 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 42 expensive, U.S.-made F-35B stealth fighters capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings. Japan plans to buy 147 F-35s over the next decade.
The guidelines would replace the current defence plan halfway through and underscore Abe’s push to expand Japan’s military role and capability to make it “a normal country” in Abe’s words. He has long wanted to revise Japan’s U.S.-drafted constitution that renounces war and has already broadened the concept of self-defence to allow Japanese personnel to defend allied military forces as Japan increasingly works alongside American troops.
Defence officials say Japan needs higher deterrence and increased missile defence and fighter capability to cope with threats from North Korea and China and other changes in the region’s security environment. 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-Defence Force’s helicopter carrier Izumo, a 250m-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 wants to play a greater role as part of the U.S.-Japan alliance. A cost estimate wasn’t given.
Critics say possession of an aircraft carrier would give Japan a strike capability in violation of its pacifist constitution that limits use of force to self-defence only. Japan, under the new defence guidelines, also plans to possess cruise missiles designed to hit enemy targets, which opponents say could go beyond Japan’s pacifist principle.
Defence officials brushed off the criticism, saying Izumo will be a multifunctional warship used as aircraft carrier only when necessary for national defence.
The guidelines say Japan needs to beef up its air defence capability in the Pacific, while expanding surveillance in the area. The Defence 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 ($123 million) — will drive up Japan’s defence 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 ($3 billion) to buy a pair of land-fixed U.S. missile defence system, Aegis Ashore, as well as other American missile interceptors.
The Cabinet, under the guidelines, also approved a new Medium Term Defence Program requiring a record five-year defence spending of 27 trillion yen ($334 billion) beginning 2019, up more than 2 trillion yen ($24.7 billion) from an earlier five-year defence budget.
As Japan comes under pressure from President Donald Trump to allow more exports from the U.S., purchases of costly American weapons would be a way to reduce the U.S. trade deficit, while enhancing military cooperation between the allies. Japan’s U.S. arms purchases have surged, and the Defence Ministry came under criticism for agreeing too easily to Washington’s hefty asking price. The guidelines said Japan will seek more cost-efficient purchase of advance-capability U.S. equipment, while pushing for more joint research and development.
Buying more American weapons, however, would be a setback for Japan’s defence industry and its hopes to develop its own replacement of F-2 fighter jets are uncertain. The guideline did not mention whether the F-2 successor would be made made-in-Japan or jointly developed.
The guidelines also called for setting up a unit specialising in space, cyberattacks and electronic warfare, while integrating the ground maritime and air forces to better coordinate operations. Japan should aim for a unified, simultaneous “multi-dimensional and unified defence capability” that breaks away from the conventional concept of ground, maritime and air defence, the guidelines said.
As the fast-aging country faces declining population and workforce, Japan will accept more women to join the self-defence force, postpone retirement age and promote research and development of robotics and unmanned equipment.