Japan’s post-war security policy is under transformation. After decades of restraint, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which is inclined to revise the country’s pacifist Constitution, is moving away from a strictly ‘self-defence’ orientation to ‘offensive posturing’. It is ‘determined to build and maintain a reasonably-sized and capable’ navy which should respond to future security challenges.
It is contemplating to introduce aircraft carriers in the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) order of battle. The plan involves remodeling and upgrading the Izumo class destroyer into an aircraft carrier, and during a recent news conference, the Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya remarked that “it will be used for as many purposes as possible”. Further, studies are in progress to examine if the ship can accommodate fighter jets such as the Lockheed Martin’s F-35B, the naval variant of F-35 stealth fighter jet.
The Defense Minister Iwaya remarks also come in the background of reports suggesting that Japan may have placed orders for 42 F-35A for the Japanese Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) to replace the aging fleet of F-15s. Japan plans to acquire nearly one hundred F-35B naval fighter jets clearly suggesting that it would modify/build at least three Izumo class destroyers into aircraft carriers. This is in line with the general aircraft carrier philosophy for effective operations under which at least three vessels (one forward deployed, second under maintenance and the third for training) should be in the inventory of the navy. However, there are bound to be financial and human resource constraints to operate three vessels.
The Japanese choice of modifying the Izumo class destroyers into aircraft carriers also overcomes the limitations imposed by the pacifist Constitution which forbids acquisition of aircraft carriers, and the carrier will now operate within the ambit of its defense-oriented policy which the Japanese people have cherished after the World War II.
There are at least three reasons which prompt Japan to now openly declare its aircraft carrier ambitions. First, is the JMSDF’s new security environment wherein the future Chinese naval task groups will be led by aircraft carriers and be a common sight in the Indo-Pacific region. Currently, the PLA Navy operates its only aircraft carrier ‘Liaoning’ and has less than 30 J-15 fighter jets; there are plans to build at least four aircraft carrier groups by 2030 and would require 130 carrier-based fighter jets. This is in line with the Chinese ambition of developing a blue-water navy that can operate across the globe.
At another level are Chinese naval deployments in the Sea of Japan. Early this year, a PLA Navy Shang-class nuclear attack submarine was detected in the East China Sea in the contiguous zone around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Besides there have been regular sighting of Chinese warships, coastguard vessels and civilian fishing trawlers in the territorial sea and the contiguous zone around the Senkaku islands since Japan announced their nationalization in 2012. These have caused enormous concern and urgency in Tokyo to acquire suitable platforms to challenge Chinese naval, maritime and fishery infringements.
Second is the growing pressure from the United States that its allies such as Japan invest in military buildup to defend themselves. President Donald Trump has even questioned the value of forward deployed US forces, yet he sees them as the best bet against North Korea and China. Notwithstanding the rhetoric, Japan contributes nearly 75 per cent of the cost of supporting US forces in Japan, and in 2018 the Japanese government budgeted $1.7 billion for cost sharing, $2 billion for the realignment of US forces, and $2.3 billion in other alliance-related expenditures. Both the US and Japan also know that their alliance is the best option to curtail Chinese hegemony in the region.
Third, the Russian naval deployments and air activity in the Far East have increased significantly. Russian maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft such as the Tu-142MZ have been detected around major Japanese islands, and Russian Air Force Su-24 nuclear-capable attack bomber have conducted an aerial patrol over the Sea of Japan. In September 2018, the Russian government ordered a major military exercise Vostok 2018 in Siberia in Russia’s Far East. The exercises, the largest since the early 1980s, involved large number of ‘troops deployed for a simulated large-scale conventional war against the United States and its allies including Japan’.
There are obvious reasons for the JMSDF to expand its focus from the mission of protecting Japan’s sea lines of communications (SLOCs) and support US Navy operations in the north-western Pacific and surrounding waters, to conducting independent exercises in the South China Sea. The latter is prompted by the ongoing weaponisation by China of island features it has reclaimed and illegally occupied in the South China Sea.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is former Director National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi and is associated with the Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.