- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 12, 2003

HONOLULU — The Japanese navy is preparing to build two small aircraft carriers, the first in more than 60 years, Japanese and U.S. officials said.

The plan for the warships is further evidence that Japan is gradually shedding the pacifist cocoon in which it has wrapped itself since its devastating defeat in World War II.

The two warships will be capable of carrying STOVL (short takeoff, vertical landing) aircraft, sometimes called “jump jets,” which can fly as fighters or bombers, as well as armed helicopters.

The ships will displace 13,500 tons, about 16,000 tons when fully loaded, and will sail at speeds above 30 knots. Their size will approach Spain’s 16,700-ton Principe De Asturias, which carries 17 planes, but they will be larger than Thailand’s 11,500-ton Chakri Nareubet with its 12 planes.

The Japanese carriers, however, will not come close to the newly commissioned U.S. leviathan, the 98,000-ton Ronald Reagan with its 80 warplanes.

The Japanese carriers can be deployed as command ships to give the Maritime Self-Defense Force, as the Japanese navy is called, a modest ability to project power into the sea lanes that are vital to Japan’s economy.

That capability is likely to draw protests from China, North Korea and South Korea, all of which experienced Japanese invasion before and during World War II. Beijing, Pyongyang and Seoul routinely criticize any attempt to enhance Japan’s security.

In contrast, U.S. political leaders, beginning with President Carter’s administration in the late 1970s, have encouraged Japan to do more for its own defense.

Tokyo has been reluctant until recently, when many Japanese began to perceive an immediate threat from North Korea and a longer-term threat from China. In its 2003 White Paper on defense, published last week, the Self-Defense Agency asserted that the nation must build up its fundamental defense capabilities to ensure its independence.

In that respect, Japan is on the verge of building a missile defense and dispatching troops to Iraq for reconstruction and has just launched a second pair of intelligence satellites to watch North Korea.

Tokyo recently passed laws giving the Self-Defense Forces wider latitude in defending their homeland, which other nations would consider the normal duties of their armed forces.

Funds for the first small carrier have been included in Japan’s defense budget for fiscal year 2004, beginning April 1. The second carrier is scheduled for fiscal year 2005.

The first ship is to be commissioned in 2008, the second in 2009. Two more may be built later.

The plan calls for equipping the carriers with new SH-60 Seahawk helicopters, which are designed to patrol the ocean, detect submarines and protect the fleet. They are made in Japan on license from Sikorsky, a U.S. company.

Japanese naval officers call the new ships “destroyers” instead of “aircraft carriers” in an effort to dampen opposition within Japan from critics who are against enhanced defense and from China and the two Koreas.

Yet drawings of the warship show the flat deck of an aircraft carrier and an “island,” or command structure, at the starboard or right edge of the deck.

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