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Politics

Japan sets sights on carrier-based fighter jets

Retrofitting vessels for the F-35B would raise constitutional issues

The F-35B stealth aircraft requires less than 200 meters of space for takeoff.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- The Japanese government is firming up plans to buy U.S. stealth fighters and modify its Izumo helicopter destroyer to accommodate them. But some argue that this step, aimed at deterring China and North Korea, fits poorly with Tokyo's defense-only policy.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party's Research Commission on National Security will outline a proposal Tuesday for changes to defense guidelines. These will include procuring short takeoff and vertical landing aircraft -- referring to F-35B stealth planes -- and turning the Izumo helicopter destroyer into a base for other air power, including fighter jets.

The party will submit fleshed-out proposals in May for the government to discuss. Revised guidelines are due out late this year.

The F-35B requires less than 200 meters of space for takeoff, according to a defense-industry insider -- much less than the F-35A now used by the Air Self-Defense Force. This ability to operate on shorter runways would enhance the nation's ability to defend far-flung islands, a government source said.

F-35Bs would also be easier to use with aircraft carriers, though the Self-Defense Forces currently have none. The Defense Ministry is studying whether F-35Bs -- potentially including the U.S. military's -- could take off from and land on the flat Izumo deck.

With tensions mounting over North Korea's nuclear and missile development, and China building up its air and naval forces, Tokyo hopes to present a stronger deterrent. The government and the LDP envision deploying the refitted Izumo carrier with F-35Bs to the southwest, where they could respond quickly to problems in such areas as the Senkaku Islands, which are administered by Japan and claimed by China as the Diaoyu. This would enable Japan to repel attacks by enemy fighters or land-based forces.

Tokyo is particularly focused on China, which has been expanding its maritime military activities in the East China Sea and elsewhere. Being able to use F-35B fighters at sea would significantly improve operational flexibility, a former ASDF officer said.

But opposition lawmakers argue that turning the Izumo helicopter destroyer into a de facto aircraft carrier may depart from the constitutionally mandated defensive military posture. The government's interpretation of the constitution's war-renouncing Article 9 stipulates that Japan will not possess "offensive weapons designed to be used only for the mass destruction of another country," specifically naming attack aircraft carriers as an example.

The Izumo helicopter destroyer's flat deck may be able to accommodate short takeoff and vertical landing aircraft like the F-35B.   © Kyodo

A senior Ministry of Defense official dismissed these concerns, saying that the Izumo would be a "defensive aircraft carrier." But the line between offensive and defensive in this context is unclear.

Cost is a concern as well. One proposal would involve procuring 20 or so F-35B jets. These are even pricier than the F-35A, which costs 15 billion yen ($141 million) each.

The LDP proposals will also include a call to consider letting Japan possess the capacity to launch counterattacks against enemy bases, which is certain to raise more constitutional questions.

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