Japanese ‘Helicopter Destroyer’ Stirs Regional Tensions

August 12, 2013 4:20 AM - Updated: August 12, 2013 10:14 AM


On Aug. 9, the Japanese Ministry of Defense held a naming ceremony for the Izumo, the latest ship to join the Maritime Self-Defense Forces. Officially a “helicopter carrier-type escort/destroyer,” Izumo was built at the Japan Marine United shipyards at Yokohama. Although publicly touted as an anti-submarine warfare platform, the ship is capable of filling a critical role in the defense of disputed Japanese territory. The launch has been reported with alarm in East Asia as resurgent territorial claims—exacerbated by nationalism and longstanding historical differences—have generated regional tension not seen for decades.

The appearance of the Izumo has triggered a negative reaction throughout East Asia, in a time when territorial squabbling has heightened historical tensions. It is perhaps no surprise that the even the name Izumo itself has historical baggage: the original Izumo, an armored cruiser that participated in the Battle of Tsushima, was purchased with reparations from the first Sino-Japanese War. There is little doubt all parties, particularly the Chinese, are aware of the lineage.

The Izumo-class of helicopter destroyers, of which there will be two, represents an evolutionary growth over the previous Hyuga-class helicopter destroyers. The ships measure 800 feet in length with a beam of 124 feet and a displacement of 19,500 tons. he ship will have a crew of approximately 470. The flight deck and hangar are designed to accommodate up to 14 helicopters, including two CH-47 Chinooks. The flight deck is sufficiently large to allow simultaneous flight operations by up to five helicopters.

The Izumo is being touted by the JMSDF as a multi-purpose vessel. The primary stated mission is anti-submarine warfare, with the ship embarking multiple H-60 helicopters. The JMSDF also has stated that the ship would be useful in humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations, serving as a floating airfield for the refueling of search-and-rescue helicopters. During the 11 March 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, the USS Ronald Reagan served a similar role. To support such a role, Izumo has a 35-bed hospital, complete with a surgical suite and has accommodations for up to 450 passengers.

The launch of Izumo is part of a larger naval shipbuilding boom in Asia, and a specific trend toward aviation-capable, multipurpose ships. South Korea has one ship, the Dokdo. China has one carrier, the Liaoning, and is reportedly at work on a second. Russia has said that the first of two Mistral-class LHDs ordered from France will join its Pacific fleet at Vladivostok. Australia has two Canberra-class LHDs on order. In addition to the Izumo, Japan currently has the three LSTs of the Osumi class, and the two ships of the Hyuga class. At this time only Liaoning has a fixed-wing aviation capability. All of these ships are capable of projecting power—each having full-length flight decks and many also having well decks. Even the smallest can carry at least a battalion of marines or naval infantry.

Fueling this boom in large part are a number of longstanding territorial disputes and historical rivalries. China claims the South China Sea, which has brought on tensions with practically every nation that has a sea border with the claimed area. Japan claims the southern Kuriles, the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, and the Korean island of Dokdo, which brings it into dispute with Russia, China, Taiwan, and South Korea, respectively. South Korea claims the Japanese-held Tsushima island and vigorously defends Dokdo. Most of the islands or islets at the heart of these territorial claims could easily be defended—or assaulted—by one of these new generation of ships.

China’s recent pressing claims on Japan’s Senkaku Islands (known as Diaoyu Islands in China) have caught Japan ill-prepared to defend them. Japan has few military bases in the area; China has not so vigorously pressed its claim as it has in the last three years. The Izumo and the rest of Japan’s amphibious and helicopter escort ships could theoretically provide air and sea lift to transport Japan’s nascent marine infantry, the Western Army Infantry Regiment based in southern Japan.

Negative reaction in Asia also is being driven by the fact that the Izumo appears to be an aircraft carrier, which is generally considered an offensive weapon. Suspicion of Japanese motives is historically rooted in Japan’s extended—often brutal—occupations in the past of Taiwan, Korea, and China. Japan’s neighbors also take a skeptical view of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, which they see as an army, navy, and air force in all but name in a country where armed forces are constitutionally banned. Japan’s perceived bending of that law to accumulate defense capabilities fuels suspicions.

Indeed, there are no obvious technical obstacles to the Izumo carrying F-35Bs fighters. Some improvements the Izumo sports over the previous Hyuga class—such as moving defensive armament off the flight deck, and moving an elevator behind the island—support theories involving fixed-wing aircraft. Publicly, the JMSDF denies that the ships will be equipped with the F-35B.

Kyle Mizokami

Kyle Mizokami

Kyle Mizokami writes on defense and security issues in Asia, particularly Japan. He is the founder and editor for the blogs Japan Security Watch, Asia Security Watch and War Is Boring. Contributor at Medium, The Atlantic.com, Salon, The Japan Times and The Diplomat.

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