What has long been predicted has come to pass: supposedly pacifist Japan is going to operate an aircraft carrier – and that’s official.

But looking beyond the “wow” factor, Japanese defense initiatives often look more impressive at first glance than on closer examination.

Tokyo’s just-released National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) calls for converting the 20,000 ton JS Izumo – now known as a “helicopter destroyer” – into an aircraft carrier able to handle a dozen or so F-35B stealth fighters.

The release rightly grabbed attention. The idea of a 21st-century Japanese aircraft carrier – the weapon a militaristic Tokyo wielded with such panache in the early years of World War II in the Pacific, or even an ad hoc version – was taboo only a few years ago.

And certainly, there are potential benefits.

Japan muscles up

Being able to launch fixed-wing attack aircraft – particularly F35s – from a movable platform is a useful capability in the maritime environment of Northeast Asia, as carriers, due to their innate maneuverability, are harder to hit than airfields ashore.

Operating an aircraft carrier will also upgrade Maritime Self Defense Force skills and might even force the Japanese services to better cooperate with each other – thus addressing a major Japanese Self Defense Force shortcoming.

Overstretched US naval forces will also welcome the help a Japanese carrier provides.

And it’s all a deterrent of sorts. Beyond operational capabilities, a carrier demonstrates Japan is overcoming its defense phobias and is willing to defend itself – however, this information might be better received in the US capital than in some capitals in the region.

Pushing the envelope on an aircraft carrier – and getting the public used to the JSDF having actual combat as a mission – might also make Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s oft-proposed, oft-delayed, constitutional reform effort easier.

No objections

Predictable objections can be dealt with.

First, it’s argued that the constitution prohibits aircraft carriers, but this is a red herring. The plain language of Article 9 practically rules out Japan even having a police force. Yet Japan has always interpreted its constitution as needed and has built a considerable military, even if it is called a “Self Defense Force.”

The “pacifist” constitution serves more as an excuse for Tokyo to avoid doing anything it doesn’t want to do when the Americans ask.

Next, opponents argue aircraft carriers are “offensive weapons” and therefore prohibited by Japanese government policy. However, weapons are neither inherently offensive nor defensive. It depends on how they are used.

Japan’s submarine force can easily go on the offensive and sink ships off the Asian mainland. And nothing prevents Japanese F-15s from going onto the attack. Yet Japan has restrained itself for the last 60 years despite possessing these “offensive” weapons.

More useful is considering whether military operations are done in the context of a “strategic offense,” say, invading and occupying the Asian mainland – something that nobody in Japan either talks or dreams about. Or a “strategic defense,” say, defending Japanese territory from attack. Offensive operations, including counter-attacks, are proper and commonsensical if done on the “strategic defensive.”

As for aircraft carriers being power projection weapons, perhaps. But Izumo, and it’s sister ship Kaga, don’t project much power – even with F35s. There are only two them.

Meanwhile, China has announced it is building five or six far larger carriers in the near future. And experts are already getting a whiff of the Japanese preference for appearance over substance.

Big bucks for US industry

The former Head of Intelligence at the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet, retired Captain James Fanell, notes: “I’m hopeful that once this taboo about building carriers has been overcome that the Japanese people/government realize they need more than just two ‘show boats’.”

“While a significant first step, the conversion of [even] two Izumo-class carriers will have a limited impact due to the ‘three-to-make-one’ principal,” Fanell said. “Under this principle, one aircraft carrier is in maintenance, one is undergoing readiness training and one is available for actual operations.”

There is no evidence Tokyo is looking beyond two carriers.

A retired American naval aviator with long experience in Japan and with Japanese officialdom was less diplomatic. “Just because their elevators can handle [the] F35 doesn’t mean they can conduct flight ops, much less combat ops … it’s total ‘BS’ for US consumption.”

Still, he was upbeat on the comments Japanese officials were making about buying another 100 F35 stealth fighters, besides the 42 planes on order. “At least it’s a change from hearing the Japanese say: ‘Due to our severe financial situation … (fill in the excuse for not doing whatever)’.”

A retired senior Japanese defense official concurred. He suggested Tokyo’s hinted-at $8.8 billion F-35 procurement was at least partly motivated by a desire to “appease and ease pressure by the US government in coming trade negotiations.”

He added that to some in the Abe administration, the Izumo carrier plan was more an effort to justify buying more F35s rather than a well thought out effort to bolster Japan’s defense.

Indeed, he criticized the NDPG for its limited outlook on strategic issues, JSDF force structure and capability requirements and Japan-US alliance requirements, saying it reads simply like a “shopping list for expensive weapons made in the USA.”

He further noted that both civilians and some of the JSDF “haven’t really thought through what is needed to operate carriers effectively.”

Sustainable strategy lacking

Observers have long pointed out Japan’s tendency to buy expensive “silver bullets” – Global Hawk, cruise missiles, Aegis Ashore and F35s – without a coherent strategy, and while ignoring less glamorous hardware such as communications equipment or adequate stocks of munitions.

The former defense official warned: “JSDF cannot afford to indulge in playing with such toys.”

Instead, he argues that what’s needed is a top-to-bottom review to ensure real warfighting capability and everything necessary to facilitate the alliance with the US – to include joint operations and more emphasis on logistics and sustainability.

“Such toys [as the Izumo aircraft carrier] are … harmful and less useful than the battleships Yamato and Musashi,” he snarled. The two battleships – the mightiest ever built, by any nation – made no impact on the war at sea, and proved relatively easy prey for US carrier-based aircraft.

And since the Izumo won’t be operational, as a carrier, for at least another five years, Tokyo might consider other pressing requirements.

First, make better use of what JSDF already has. In particular, develop joint capabilities. The JSDF struggles with even rudimentary joint, combined operations. If carriers are to operate in support of the Ground Self Defense Force’s new amphibious brigade to defend or retake Japan’s southern islands, interoperability is essential.

And maybe, buy fewer F35s and allocate more money for JSDF training.

Without these efforts, jury-rigged carriers won’t make much difference.  Observers worry whether Japan’s defense budget will expand enough to pay for the F35s – or instead be stripped out of an already too-small budget.

“The [Chinese] People’s Liberation Army’s ability to project power from its joint, and integrated, forces presents an existential threat to Japan,” Fanell said. “If the JSDF is to survive, it must have a robust carrier-based force [beyond the two Izumo-class carriers] that can expand its maneuvering space and thus improve the chance of successfully defending Japanese territory.”

This appears unlikely at the moment.

So the Izumo initiative is marginal progress. It ultimately reflects the latest victory between a dominant group of officials, politicians, businessmen and even some JSDF officers who prefer a “pro-forma” defense over a smaller group of military and civilians who want a capable military, structured and equipped to face actual threats and fully integrated with US forces.