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Japanese ‘Helicopter Destroyer’ Stirs Regional Tensions


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.

  • crabtrem8

    Considering the Chinese have used their Russian built carrier in the same role, I would say that diminishes any Chinese complaints. In fact it is the Chinese that are showing all the signs of global expansion. They are actively pursuing Taiwan, the Spratly Islands, the Senkaku islands, and much more. Add Korean belligerence in the region; I believe Japanese force expansion can only be categorized as defensive.

    • It’s only a matter of time before another cold war heats up again

      • The war started years ago; it’s not fought with guns until other measures fail.

    • Considering the Chinese, I would say we can dismiss any Chinese complaints. 😉 Korea only matters when U.S., Russia, Japan, and China decide how to cut it up and distribute it. Japanese power expansion is welcome, for now.

  • MarineCorpsVet

    The Japanese do not have the population to support the kind of war machine they had in WWII. The Chinese have an over-population of males that they don’t know what to do with. I would be more concerned with the Chinese than the Japanese. The same kind of population reversal also exists for Korea. The Japanese have been under-reproducing themselves for decades now.

    • dionkraft

      The Japanese will utilize automation and robots to take the place of humans.
      Even comfort girls will not swell the japanese population count.

      • Fair point and they can send the comfort women our way…

    • Andrew Caputo

      but the japanese have US backing and china does not so japan is all of a sudden less defenceless because of their american counterparts acting as guardians

      • I think the Japanese are a little nervous about the American shield. A sudden withdrawal of it would leav them in a lurch. It takes a while to build these ships.

        • Not only that, we like to let wars go on for a while and then turn up late to clean up the mess and look good….

    • If we were in a ground war with China, we would need to use nukes. Anyone who disagrees wasn’t paying attention to the end of the Korean Conflict.

  • muzzleloader

    This is not the Imperial Japan of WW2. Japan has a belligerent giant called China in it’s backyard that seeks to take the Senkaku Islands, and is building it’s own CV fleet. China knows tht a CV is a power projection tool. Why should Japan not be allowed to counter that with thier own carrier? I for one, am not concerned that in a decade we will see another 1941 Yamamoto style carrier battle fleet roaming the seas, but I can see China doing the same.

    • Andrew Caputo

      bbbbut the yamato was fuckin awsome they SHOULD make another it would be badass…not very useful in modern combat but badass nonetheless.

  • Chuckiechan

    China seems to feel that anyplace where they planted a flag since the middle kingdom is their territory.

    • Andrew Caputo

      yeah thats the problem XD