Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s march to reform the war-renouncing Japanese Constitution is still mired in a slog of domestic political resistance. But, as has generally been the case since the Japan Self-Defense Forces were reconstituted in 1954, Tokyo isn’t waiting for public concern to align neatly with its strategic interests. Rather, it is pushing forward with plans to arm itself with equipment and systems that can address Japan’s core geopolitical vulnerabilities – and further its ability to flex its muscles far from its shores.

Next week, Abe’s Cabinet is expected to approve a pair of documents laying out defense priorities for the next decade. Drafts of the plans leaked this week, and highlights illustrate just how far Tokyo is stretching the limits of what has been acceptable under its pacifist constitution, which has banned purely offensive weapons such as aircraft carriers, long-range bombers and ballistic missiles. The new guidelines are expected to formally abandon Japan’s de facto cap on military spending at 1 percent of gross domestic product. (Japan is currently set to spend around $240 billion over the next five years.) The new spending will reportedly focus on missiles, including missile defense systems to guard against threats from China and North Korea and new, longer-range cruise and hypersonic missiles of its own.

But the star of the show is a plan to turn at least one of the Japanese navy’s two largest flat-decked helicopter destroyers into a fixed-wing aircraft carrier – its first since World War II – the ultimate tool for projecting naval power. Tokyo is reportedly set to order at least 20 F-35B fighter jets, the variant of the multirole jet capable of vertical or short takeoffs and vertical landings without a catapult launcher, in the next year. Is the Japanese navy once again ready to sail upon – and take flight from – the high seas?

A Carrier, by Any Other Name

Japan’s long-term ambition to edge back into naval aviation has been clear since at least 2012, when work began on the first of its two Izumo-class flat-decked warships. The JS Izumo and the JS Kaga, by far the largest ships in the Japanese navy’s fleet, are officially referred to as “helicopter destroyers.” Neither has the armaments, speed or maneuverability of typical destroyers used as nimble escort ships. What they do have is an 814-foot (248-meter) flat deck – dramatically longer than their Hyuga-class predecessors, which were themselves launched only in 2009 and can carry out most of the mission requirements of the Izumo class.

The Izumo-class flat decks are considerably smaller than those sported by U.S. supercarriers (the newest of which clocks in at 1,106 feet). They’re slightly shorter than the U.S. Navy’s America-class amphibious assault ships but still longer than Italian and Spanish carriers, all of which are designed to carry F-35B fighter jets. According to a Ministry of Defense study released in April, the Izumo-class ships would need only modest retrofits, such as the installation of a ski jump, to be able to carry the F-35B. Unnamed Japanese navy sources told the newspaper Asahi Shimbun in February that the Izumo ships were originally designed with conversion into fixed-wing carriers in mind.

(click to enlarge)

Tokyo is still twisting itself into knots to avoid describing the carriers as offensive attack instruments. If adapted for fixed-wing aircraft, they will reportedly be reclassified as “multipurpose operation destroyers.” (This summer, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party toyed with the term “defensive aircraft carrier,” but even that was too provocative.) Yet the rationale for fixed-wing carriers is expected to be that Japan needs to ensure that at least some of its fighter planes would survive a first strike by China or North Korea – still a defensive purpose.

So why the semantic contortions? Abe’s push to revise Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution with language that allows for a more flexible interpretation is still very much in doubt. The latest target date for passage by Japan’s parliament is mid-2019, but the timeline keeps getting extended, most recently on Monday. Though pro-amendment parties have a two-thirds majority in both houses of the National Diet, they have competing priorities, and any amendment would need to be approved in a national referendum. There’s a geopolitical element as well: Tokyo is keen to avoid arousing further suspicions among its neighbors, particularly in Seoul and Beijing, about the trajectory of its remilitarization.

The carrier issue illustrates why Article 9 matters – and why it doesn’t. Legal and political constraints have certainly limited the military’s ability to prepare for future conflicts. In a crisis the Japanese public would probably support whatever measures Tokyo deemed necessary to secure the country. Japan’s ability to act in a military crisis, however, would hinge on peacetime decisions made years in advance over issues such as spending, training and doctrine. And Japanese governments have long pursued controversial capabilities at a glacial pace, lest they face crippling legal or political blowback. Even so, Article 9 hasn’t kept Abe’s government from toeing the legal line and building breakout capability to enable the Japanese military to modernize in a hurry once it has cleared the legal and political hurdles.

Preparing for an Uncertain Future

Tokyo can still claim that the Izumo-class warships are primarily suited for defensive purposes. At present, they carry only helicopters that would be used primarily for anti-submarine warfare. With space for some 400 marines and 50 light vehicles, the warships could also be used for amphibious assault operations – a capability typically considered offensive, since amphibious operations are usually conducted in enemy lands. Given how many of Japan’s far-flung islands in the East China Sea are lightly protected and vulnerable to Chinese capture, though, Japan can reasonably claim that it has a defensive need for amphibious assault. Indeed, Abe’s government has faced little resistance to its plans to develop amphibious capabilities, including the activation in April of Japan’s first marine unit since World War II.

For the foreseeable future, the ability to execute these sorts of missions is probably enough to meet Japan’s most immediate strategic risks. So long as it remains tightly allied with the U.S. – and Washington remains willing to go to bat for Tokyo – Japan would need to play only a support role in U.S.-led operations in nearby waters. (Article 9 also limits Japan’s ability to participate in joint operations with allies outside Japanese territory.) Tokyo, in fact, has often taken advantage of its constitutional constraints to offload some of its security burden onto the U.S. and to keep its spending focused on the economy. But Japan can’t be sure that the U.S. will stick around forever or – given China’s knack for preventing U.S. forces from operating freely in its coastal terrain – that Washington would be willing to face the costs of joining a Sino-Japanese war. Japan has a geopolitical imperative to keep sea lanes open. It is almost entirely bereft of natural resources, and without the free transit of oil and other commodity imports, its economy would grind to a halt. It needs at least to be moving toward developing a strike capability in distant seas.

The evolution will be slow, even without legal hurdles. As China has demonstrated, having shiny new aircraft carriers is hardly the same thing as being able to send a carrier strike group off to battle in distant waters. A carrier group needs things like advanced support ships and air wings, tightly integrated combat systems, and an extensive network of supply depots and maintenance hubs. Most important, it needs generations of training and operational experience with naval aviation. China is scrambling to build institutional operational memory from the ground up.

Although the Japanese navy has carrier experience, few people in Japan today were alive the last time it conducted a carrier operation, and the game has changed since World War II. Tokyo is getting started now on what it might need in 30 years. (Think of the new “multipurpose operation destroyers” as carriers with training wheels – ones that happen to have elite anti-submarine warfare and amphibious capabilities.) Japan’s distinct advantage is that it can continue working closely with the U.S. to get up to speed relatively quickly – while accessing cutting-edge U.S. technology, to boot. China, absent any allies with meaningful naval experience, will be stuck figuring it all out on the fly.

Phillip Orchard
Phillip Orchard is an analyst at Geopolitical Futures. Prior to joining the company, Mr. Orchard spent nearly six years at Stratfor, working as an editor and writing about East Asian geopolitics. He’s spent more than six years abroad, primarily in Southeast Asia and Latin America, where he’s had formative, immersive experiences with the problems arising from mass political upheaval, civil conflict and human migration. Mr. Orchard holds a master’s degree in Security, Law and Diplomacy from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, where he focused on energy and national security, Chinese foreign policy, intelligence analysis, and institutional pathologies. He also earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He speaks Spanish and some Thai and Lao.