Japan is planning to have aircraft carriers for the first time since World War Two, under new defense guidelines approved by its cabinet on Tuesday.
The country will retrofit two existing helicopter carriers so they can launch state-of-the-art stealth fighter jets made in the US.
The announcement is part of a new five-year defense plan agreed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, which will see record military spending of 27.47 trillion yen (€215 billion) up to March 2024.
But critics are worried the move shifts the SDF further away from its commitment to be strictly defensive in the country’s post-World War Two pacifist constitution.
Not ‘Fully-Fledged’ Carriers
Officials say two flat-top Izumo-class destroyers, which can currently carry up to 14 helicopters, will be refitted to carry the fighters.
Japan also plans to buy 42 F-35B short take-off and vertical landing jets from the US, which could be used on the new carriers, as well as 105 F-35A fighters, which take off from land.
The refitted ships and new warplanes would “increase operational flexibility” for Japan’s military as China increases its naval presence in southern waters around remote Japanese islands, according to an official.
However, he also pointed out it was a “misunderstanding” to believe the upgrades would create “fully-fledged aircraft carriers” capable of long-distance operations, or that Japan would try to establish carrier air squadrons.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suda also sought to address concerns the new guidelines was a change in the country’s long-standing defense focus.
“We will secure both the quantity and quality of defense capability that is necessary… to meet the rapidly changing security environment,” he told a regular press briefing on Tuesday.
“We believe this is within… what is allowed under the constitution.”
Pressures from Trump and China
Prime Minister Abe has continually increased the defense budget since taking office in 2012.
He argues expanding Japan’s military capability will make it a “normal country” and allow it to counter potential threats from North Korean rockets and China.
The new defense guidelines also call for a special unit responsible for protecting the country against cyberattacks and electronic warfare.
Abe is also under pressure from US President Donald Trump to buy more US military equipment. Trump has repeatedly complained about the size of America’s trade deficit with Japan.