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Five things to know about Japan's new and bigger defense plan

SDF to acquire offensive capabilities to fend off threats from China and N Korea

Japan's new National Defense Program Guidelines call for the purchase of 105 F-35 jets from the U.S. (Source photo from Reuters)

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's cabinet has approved a revised version of the National Defense Program Guidelines, which set out the country's defense capability targets over 10-year periods.

The revision marks a significant upgrade of the nation's defense capabilities, including the introduction of the first aircraft carrier since World War II, the deployment of long-range missiles, and the development of cyber and space warfare capabilities. Here are five things to know about the defense blueprint unveiled on Tuesday.

Why a new plan now?

The original impetus came from North Korea's missile and nuclear tests, which last year prompted Abe to order a review of the previous guidelines, revised in 2013. Japan is also facing greater Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. China is building and militarizing islands, threatening U.S. warships approaching those islands and mounting pressure on Japan-administered islets in the East China Sea that China also claims.

The revision also comes amid pressure on U.S. allies to take more responsibility for their own defense. U.S. President Donald Trump has hinted at a possible withdrawal of U.S. forces from Northeast Asia.

What are the major changes in the new policy?

The revision was undertaken under a "multidimensional joint defense force" concept, which stresses the need to invest in the newest domains of warfare -- space and cyberspace. These areas sit outside the traditional domains of air, sea and ground defenses. Specifically, the blueprint adopts the notion of "active defense," urging Japan to beef up its capabilities to disrupt enemy telecommunications infrastructure.

The plan recognizes that such operations transcend the traditional military divisions and urges the need for "cross domain" expertise.

The Izumo helicopter carrier of the Maritime Self-Defense Force will be repurposed as an aircraft carrier.   © Reuters

Will Japan bulk up in arms?

To play a more active role in the defense of Japan, the government will convert its helicopter carrier, the JS Izumo, into an aircraft carrier capable of launching the F-35B stealth fighters. These aircraft are capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings, and can be operated from existing warships that lack a catapult launcher. Japan will purchase 105 F-35 jets, including conventional takeoff and landing variants.

To respond to the threat of longer-range Chinese anti-ship missiles, Japan will deploy Standoff Missiles that are capable of striking sea-based targets from a distance of 900 km. The Defense Ministry will also work on new equipment, such as hypersonic guided missiles that fly more than five times the speed of sound to evade radar networks. In addition, a new land-based missile defense system, Aegis Ashore, will be purchased from the U.S.

And the fiscal burden of it all?

According to the Midterm Defense Program, which was adopted on Tuesday, the government is setting aside more than 27 trillion yen ($240 billion) for military spending and procurement over a five-year period that begins with fiscal 2019. The amount represents an increase of about 3 trillion yen from the current program covering fiscal 2014 through fiscal 2018. It also marks a record high for Japanese military spending.

The purchase of 105 F35s alone will cost a trillion yen, while the purchase of two Aegis Ashore systems will set Japan back by 240 billion yen. The government hopes these purchases will help reduce bilateral trade deficits and address Trump's concerns in this regard.

Doesn't the new plan conflict with Japan's pacifist constitution?

The Abe government is walking a fine line between strengthening defense and abiding by the war-renouncing article 9 of the nation's pacifist constitution, which limits the nation to an exclusively defensive posture.

The new guidelines stop short of calling for the acquisition of the capability to attack enemy bases, which many see as necessary to prevent North Korea from attacking Japan with its ballistic missiles.

While the Izumo will be converted to carry fighter jets, it will be designated as a multipurpose helicopter destroyer, with no F-35B squadron expected to be permanently assigned to it.

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