Japan on Tuesday approved plans to convert two ships into aircraft carriers — the nation’s first since World War II , citing the need to counter potential threats from North Korea and China. The new five-year defence plan calls for the military to upgrade two existing Izumo-class helicopter carrier (22DDH) so that they will also be able to launch fighter jets. The guidelines approved at a Cabinet meeting call for refitting an existing helicopter carrier into a ship that can deploy 42 expensive F-35B stealth fighters capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings, part of Japan’s planned purchase of 147 F-35s over the next decade.
The Izumo-class helicopter destroyer or 22DDH is a helicopter carrier class constructed for the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF). The first ship in the class, JS Izumo (DDH-183) was launched on 6 August 2013. And first ship in the class, JS Kaga (DDH-184) was launched on 27 August 2015. The possibility of operating fixed wing aircraft was incorporated into the design of the ships from the earliest stages of the Izumo program, but this was not made public because Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution prohibits Japan from possessing offensive military weapons such as aircraft carriers.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe argues the efforts are necessary given growing defence challenges in the region, including tensions with North Korea. Japan says the secretive expansion of China’s military footprint creates “strong concerns” in the region. But the move is controversial, with critics arguing it moves Tokyo further away from its commitment to strictly defensive capabilities, under Japan’s post-World War II pacifist constitution. For Japan, the new class of F-35B carriers signals a major shift in defense posture and the acknowledgement that defending their island claims may require high-end warfighting against China’s navy.
The five-year plan approved assumes record defence spending of $242 billion through March 2024. It calls for the defence ministry to upgrade two flat-top Izumo-class destroyers to enable them to launch fighters with short take-off and vertical landing capacity, like the F35B stealth fighter. Japan’s government also announced that it will over the next decade buy 42 such fighter jets, with the F35B widely considered the likeliest candidate. It also plans to buy 105 units of the F35A, which performs conventional takeoff and landings and could not be used on the retrofitted destroyers. Japan’s Izumo carriers occupy the traditional role of launching an amphibious attack to take or retake an island with while providing air power overhead, but the F-35s bring something that attack helicopters just can’t do.