Japan plans to effectively upgrade its helicopter carriers to enable them to transport and launch fighter jets, its draft new defense guidelines showed Tuesday, amid China's maritime assertiveness in waters around the country.
The ruling parties approved the draft guidelines presented by the government, which said Japan will "enable fighter jets to be operated from existing warships, if necessary, to improve the flexibility of their operation."
Specifically, the government is looking to upgrade the Izumo, a flat-top destroyer that currently accommodates helicopters, in the face of China's move as well as to enhance its air defense capabilities in the Pacific Ocean where Japan has no bases.
However, transforming the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force warship into an aircraft carrier could draw criticism as it could be seen as a shift away from the country's strictly defense-oriented policy.
Under Japan's pacifist Constitution, the government has maintained it cannot possess "attack aircraft carriers" as they are among what can be deemed offensive weapons exceeding what is necessary for self-defense.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito party agreed Tuesday to draft a statement to make sure the modified Izumo would fall within the scope of Japan's exclusively defense-oriented policy.
The government has also indicated F-35B advanced stealth fighter jets will not be permanently deployed on the remodeled Izumo destroyer. F-35B fighter jets, which Japan plans to purchase in the next five years, are capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings.
"The Izumo was originally designed as a multipurpose escort ship, so it wouldn't pose any threat to other countries if fighter jets are deployed on it," Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya told reporters earlier in the day. He added the upgraded Izumo would not be an "attack aircraft carrier."
The Izumo-class 19,500-ton carriers are 248 meters long and can carry up to 14 helicopters. They are Japan's largest postwar naval vessels.
The Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to endorse on Dec. 18 the revised version of the National Defense Program Guidelines, which set out Japan's defense capability targets over a span of about 10 years, according to government sources.
The existing guidelines were updated in 2013, but Abe has ordered a review of the policy in the face of North Korea's rapidly advancing nuclear and missile development programs.
The draft also calls for bolstering Japan's cyber defense capability including an operation to prevent the opponent from using cyberspace.
Along with the guidelines, the Abe Cabinet is set to adopt the Midterm Defense Program, which specifies a five-year defense spending and procurement plan.