TOKYO — Japan is considering upgrading its helicopter carriers to enable them to transport and launch fighter jets and include the decision in its new defense guidelines, a government source said Tuesday, indicating a departure from the country’s strictly defense-oriented policy.
The government is looking to upgrade the Izumo, a flat-top destroyer that currently accommodates helicopters, as it sees having an aircraft carrier as indispensable in the face of China’s maritime assertiveness.
Tokyo also wants to enhance its air defense capabilities in the Pacific Ocean where Japan has no bases.
The government plans to decide on the revised version of the National Defense Program Guidelines in December.
Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya appeared positive Tuesday about upgrading Izumo to serve as an aircraft carrier, telling a press conference, “It’s desirable that it will be used for as many purposes as possible.”
As for the possibility of operating F-35B advanced stealth fighter jets from aircraft carriers, Iwaya said, “a study is underway.”
The Maritime Self-Defense Force’s 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.
Under Japan’s pacifist Constitution, the government has maintained that it cannot possess “attack aircraft carriers” as they are among what can be deemed offensive weapons exceeding what is necessary for self-defense.
In May, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party urged the government to introduce a “multipurpose mother ship” that can serve as a base for air defense missions and disaster rescue operations.
As any mention of operating an aircraft carrier could signal a shift away from its current defense focus, the government weighed the option of not including it in the new defense buildup guidelines, the source said.
But the government has leaned toward referring to the issue in the guidelines to show its commitment to the strengthening of the country’s defense capabilities.
The government is expected to work out the details with the ruling parties.
Japan compiles its defense capability target guidelines over a roughly 10-year span. The existing guidelines were updated in 2013, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has ordered a review of the policy in the face of North Korea’s rapidly advancing nuclear and missile development programs.
Japan’s defense spending has also been on the rise under the Abe government, which considers the security environment facing the nation as severe.