Implications of Possessing an Aircraft Carrier for Japan

June 01, 2022

In 2018, the cabinet of then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed the plans that the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force equipped destroyer Izumo with some fixed-wing aircrafts. These aircrafts to be installed were the F-35B, a state-of-the-art vertical takeoff and landing fighter, and the plans later proposed to install the F-35B on the Izumo and the Kaga, a destroyer of the same type, as well. In addition, a new concept to use the Izumo and Kaga with the F-35B for remote island defense and sea lane defense is reportedly in the works. The Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) once had a number of fixed-wing aircrafts. Although the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) has famously proposed the idea of possessing so-called “aircraft carriers” equipped with fixed-wing aircrafts on several occasions in the past, this is the first time that plans have actually begun to move forward, and this has attracted attention from neighboring countries and other countries around the world. In this report, we would like to summarize where Japan’s first postwar aircraft carrier possession plan is headed, focusing on reactions in Japan and around the world.

(figure: JMSDF destroyer “Izumo”)

(Source: JMSDF HP)

First, let us look at the reaction in Japan. As we all know, Japan aims to be a “peaceful nation” based on Article 9 of its Constitution and the principle of “self-defense,” and the Self-Defense Forces, which were created to exercise the nation’s right to self-defense, are not allowed to possess so-called “offensive weapons” such as long-range bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Aircraft carriers are no exception to this rule, and in 1978, the Defense Councilor’s reply to the House of Representatives stated, “We do not believe that we can possess what is called an attack aircraft carrier, which is mainly equipped with attack aircraft. On the other hand, in 1989 House of Councilor’s committee meeting stated that “an aircraft carrier operating only vertical takeoff and landing aircrafts is a surface ship for anti-submarine warfare,” and it is interesting to note that the legal debate is divided between offensive and defensive aircraft carriers. We would like to analyze how this decision was reported.

How did Japanese media react to the argument? It can be pointed out that the five major newspapers in Japan were divided into three groups; supportive, neutral, and opposed. The Asahi Shimbun and the Mainichi Shimbun were against the introduction of the MSDF aircraft carrier, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun is neutral, and the Yomiuri Shimbun and the Sankei Shimbun are in favor.

Looking at the opinions of each newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun and the Mainichi Shimbun, which are against the introduction of aircraft carriers, argued as follows: “Japan’s national defense policy was originally based on a policy of exclusive defense, but having aircraft carriers is not a good idea for the neighborhood. However, having an aircraft carrier makes it possible to attack neighboring countries, as a result, Japan has the potential to be a military superpower once again.

In contrast, the Yomiuri Shimbun and the Sankei Shimbun, which are in favor of the carrier, argued that Japan has always considered its national defense policy based on the Japan-U.S. alliance, and the introduction of the aircraft carrier will make operational activities with the U.S. military even more seamless. In addition, the aircraft carrier is a necessary piece of equipment for Japan in view of the continued military expansion of neighboring countries.

On the other hand, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun which can be regarded as a neutral stance argued as follows:

“Regardless of whether or not the introduction of an aircraft carrier is acceptable, the government needs to give a clear explanation to the public as to why it is making such a plan.”

Unlike the opinions of other newspapers, this opinion seems to be more concerned with the government’s accountability than with the merits of the MSDF’s introduction of the aircraft carrier.

On the other hand, what was the reaction of the U.S., with which Japan has an alliance? Defense One, a U.S. media outlet specializing in defense issues, noted that Japan was facing a difficult environment due to the Chinese threat and the Senkaku Islands issue, and expressed understanding of the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s aircraft carrier. National Interest, another magazine specializing in defense issues, also expressed its understanding of the MSDF’s aircraft carrier program, arguing that “the capabilities of aircraft carriers are not limited to offensive roles,” and that it makes sense for Japan to possess aircraft carriers to defend Okinawa and remote islands far from the Japanese mainland. U.S. government originally expressed its support for this plan. It is not particularly surprising that the U.S. has expressed support for this plan and is cooperating with the U.S. Marine Corps in landing tests of the Izumo using its F-35B fighter jets.

The U.K. which retains enormous influence in the Western world, has also expressed its support for this plan as well as the U.S. A report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a world-renowned think tank based in London, England, states that Japan’s acquisition of an aircraft carrier “will likely generate further interest in its relationship with the Royal Navy’s carrier strike group, which also operates the F-35B,” and that “future discussion and cooperation regarding this capability is likely to be characterized by the development of defense relations between Tokyo and London”. Thus, the United States, the United Kingdom, and other Western nations seem to have a relatively favorable impression of the MSDF’s plans to possess an aircraft carrier.

(Figure: U.S. Marine Corps F-35B landing on the “Izumo”)

(Source: U.S. Marine Corps HP)

In contrast, opposition from Japan’s neighbors, especially China and South Korea, was fierce. The Japanese edition of the People’s Republic of China’s main media outlet, People’s Net, described the MSDF’s aircraft carrier program as “a clear threat to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. The Japanese version of “People’s Net,” a major Chinese media outlet, stated that Japan was aiming to become a military superpower, and then went on to show strong opposition, saying, “This change in Japan’s image means that Japan has already completely broken free of the constraints of its Peace Constitution and is moving step by step toward an offensive-type strategy. China’s Ministry of National Defense also pointed out the plan and asserted, “Japan’s attempt to expand its own military power by exaggerating and propagating so-called ‘external threats’ is a violation of its commitment to ‘exclusive defense,’ and is very wrong and dangerous. We urge the Japanese side to seriously reflect on the history of aggression, take seriously the lessons of history, refrain from words and deeds in the military and security fields, and do more to contribute to the promotion of peace and development in the region,” the statement said.

(Figure: Model of an aircraft carrier planned by the ROK Navy)

(Source: Wikipedia)

The JoongAng Ilbo, a South Korean media outlet that is also a neighbor of Japan, also expressed alarm over Japan’s possession of an aircraft carrier, calling it “a revival of the former Imperial Japanese Navy” and likening the destroyer “Kaga,” which is to be upgraded as part of this plan, to the aircraft carrier “Kaga” used by the Japanese Navy during the attack on Pearl Harbor. In addition, the ROK Navy was also moving to introduce its own light aircraft carrier as a countermeasure to Japan’s plan. The above-mentioned JoongAng Ilbo published an article titled “A ‘Korean Carrier Battle Group’ Needed to Cope with Japan’s Aircraft Carrier,” and the momentum of this trend is accelerating. On the other hand, the person who will be appointed Minister of National Defense in April 2022 stated, “First, it is necessary to consider the prioritization of equipment necessary for the ROK armed forces,” showing a cautious opinion on the introduction of an aircraft carrier of the ROK’s own. while the Japanese government fear about South Korea’s introduction of an aircraft carrier.

This will be Japan’s first aircraft carrier possession plan since the end of World War II. Naturally, it will be closely watched not only by Japan’s neighbors but also by Europe and the United States, which are far away. How will Japan operate the aircraft carriers under this plan? Can Japan really operate such a huge weapon as an aircraft carrier amidst the problems of capacity utilization? And what kind of defense strategy does Japan envision by possessing an aircraft carrier? How will this affect the situation of national debt? The eyes of the world are now focused on Japan.


Analyst, Global Intelligence Group (GIG)