Wed, Jul 10, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Japan’s biggest warship offers clue to military ambitions

As China is flexing its muscles in the South China Sea, Japanese helicopter carrier the ‘Izumo’ is deepening cooperation with ground troops and other militaries


Illustration: Mountain People

One of Japan’s largest warships, the helicopter carrier Izumo, offers a glimpse of where its military is headed: For the first time, troops from a newly formed amphibious brigade of Japan’s army participated in an extended naval deployment.

The Izumo left Subic, a former US naval base in the Philippines, at the end of a two-month deployment in the Indo-Pacific region at a time of prolonged tensions involving China’s sweeping territorial claims in and around the South China Sea.

The carrier, along with the destroyers Murasame and Akebono, just finished a series of drills with the US and other nations.

Japan’s ability to project military power beyond its borders is severely constrained by the commitment to pacifism and rejection of use of military force in conflict enshrined in its post-World War II constitution, although in 2015 it was reinterpreted to allow the use of force in defending itself and its allies.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made amending the constitution to allow the military greater leeway one of his lifetime goals.

US President Donald Trump has sought to help that cause, calling repeatedly for Japan to do more to defend itself under its alliance with the US.

In May, Japan conducted its first quadrilateral exercise with France, the US and Australia in the Bay of Bengal. France deployed its flagship nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the FS Charles de Gaulle, while the US sent a missile destroyer, the William P. Lawrence.

Other drills have included Canada, India, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines.

Japan is preparing to reconfigure the Izumo to accommodate US stealth fighters, including F-35Bs, after announcing that it would purchase 42 of its own. The aircraft are designed to operate with short takeoffs and vertical landings, such as on carriers.

The purchase underscores Japan’s growing role in its postwar alliance with the US.

“In order to incorporate what was not originally in the design, or something new that had not even been thought of, I think this would require research into many areas, otherwise it wouldn’t go well,” said Captain Katsuyoshi Motoyama, the Izumo’s commanding officer.

Yasukazu Tanaka of the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, similar to the US Marines, said that the exercises were meant to deepen coordination between them and ground troops to facilitate use of the carrier for transporting troops to front lines.

Since the Izumo can accommodate both air and sea transport, “there are great possibilities for us to conduct amphibious operations,” he said, although he and all others involved emphasized that the ground and marine troops conducted no joint exercises.

Ground troops are still exploring how best to operate on longer missions, where regulations limit use of live-fire weapons on board. Troops practiced emergency first-aid response and trained on the flight deck and in the aircraft carrier hangar deck, at times using guns made of rubber in battle scenarios.

China has been expanding its military presence to press home its determination to defend its claim to virtually the entire South China Sea in the face of challenges by the US and its allies, unnerving many in the region.

The Japanese Ministry of Defense says that the air force last year scrambled fighter jets 999 times, the second-highest number since it began defending its airspace in 1958. Of that number, 64 percent were responses to Chinese aircraft.

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