Japan is nearing development of its first aircraft carrier since World War II.
A draft of a new national defense plan, released Tuesday, says Japan should convert an existing flat-topped destroyer into a ship capable of launching short-takeoff jet fighters such as American F-35Bs.
The plan, likely to be approved by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet next week, lays out Japan’s defense priorities for 10 years starting 2019.
Momentum has been building within Mr. Abe’s government for months for the introduction of an aircraft carrier, which advocates say would better enable Japan to defend its outlying islands. Aircraft carriers allow nations to project sustained air power in remote areas, an important factor in any island conflict.
Japan’s primary concern is that China may try to seize some of its smaller islands in the East China Sea. In recent years, China has sent progressively larger coast-guard ships, some of them armed, to circle the islands.
This year Japan launched an amphibious brigade similar to the U.S. Marine Corps that is tasked with island defense.
China didn’t immediately respond to the new Japanese defense plan. But Beijing has warned repeatedly in recent years that Japan should reflect on its militarist history and refrain from damaging regional peace and security.
Japan to convert warship into aircraft carrier
Japan has four flat-top destroyers that can carry helicopters. The two larger Izumo-class ships could be potentially converted to carry and launch aircraft. Among the modifications that would need to be made would be reinforcing the deck to withstand the heat from jet fighter engines.
The government is also likely to make a decision soon on a possible new purchase of jet fighters. The defense panel of Mr. Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party has recommended buying F-35B jets, which can take off and land vertically, for the proposed aircraft carrier.
Japan is under pressure from President Trump to spend more on U.S. military hardware to reduce its trade surplus with the U.S. Tokyo has already committed to paying $2.1 billion for a new U.S. missile-defense system.
The new defense plan was discussed at a meeting of government ministers and private sector advisers on Tuesday. At the meeting, Mr. Abe called for the government to carry out defense reforms “at an unprecedented speed.”
The plan also calls for Japan to beef up its cyber and electronic warfare capabilities, while further strengthening its military alliance with the U.S.
Japan hasn’t had a full-fledged aircraft carrier since World War II. At the beginning of the war, it had one of the world’s most powerful aircraft-carrier forces, which enabled the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, but most of the fleet was sunk by the U.S. Navy.