Japan’s Disguised Aircraft Carriers

Japan commissioned the 24,000-ton Izumo last month. the largest warship to join the navy since the end of World War II. To hear Beijing, it was the second coming of the Imperial Navy and ipso facto evidence that the country, under its conservative premier Shinzo Abe, is hell-bent on “remilitarization”

By coincidence the commissioning came the same month that divers found the submerged remains of the Battleship Musashi, sunk in Philippine waters during the 1944 Battle of Leyte Gulf. It and its sister the Yamato, were then the largest battleships ever built. That led to some facile comparisons with the Izumo.

But these two ships both had triple the tonnage of the Izumo and of course they had different missions. That of the Musashi was to fight surface battles with other battleships. The Izumo is a light aircraft carrier though officially designated a “helicopter destroyer.”

The use of this term for the Izumo and other amphibious carriers in its class has raised questions about its true purpose and that Tokyo is building disguised aircraft carriers in violation of its own war-renouncing constitution. In fact the term closely matches its mission, which is to carry two dozen Seahawk anti-submarine helicopters, not fixed-wing aircraft.

Since the 1990s Japan has been building ships that look suspiciously like aircraft carriers. The first of this line was the Osumi-class. Ships of this class were officially listed as LSTs (landing ship tanks). But the Osumi had one prominent feature that LSTs lack: a flat, full-length flight deck and island structure that made them look like small aircraft carriers.

The next generation Hyuga-class also look like carriers, and these ships also have a hangar deck for maintaining and repairing helicopters. The Hyuga and its sister ship Ise resembled but were slightly smaller than the British Invincible light carrier, made famous in the Falklands War. Japan designated this line of ships and its successor “helicopter-destroyers”

Since the 1990s these ships have become progressively bigger, culminating in the 24,000-ton Izumo, launched in 2013. Like the Hyuga, it is officially designated a “helicopter destroyer”.

Several navies have ships similar to the Izumo, and some of them can carry fixed-wing aircraft. Spain’s Juan Carlos carrier supports vertical-take-off Harrier jets. Australia is building a carrier, the Canberra, but it is not to be equipped with Harriers or the vertical take-off version of the F-35. The largest ship in the South Korean navy is also a helicopter destroyer, the Dokto (named after disputed islands in the Seas of Japan.

And it doesn’t mean that the ships might not have some offensive capabilities. During the 2011 Libyan conflict the British and French launched attack helicopters from these amphibious vessels. The USS Kearsarge, an American amphibious carrier, also launched Marine Corps Harrier jets from its deck. It might also be possible to launch drones from carriers. There are good reasons why military types call these and other naval vessels “platforms”.

Shortly after the Izumo was launched, the Defense Ministry announced that it would be refitted to turn it into a command and control vessel to coordinate Japanese assets in the event that it becomes necessary to recapture an island from China. The new setup will allow the ship to gather all the information from ships transporting Japanese “marines” and aircraft supporting them so that precise information can be issued as events unfold.

In 2014 Japan conducted its first combined services drill on retaking an island. About 50 soldiers came ashore in rubber zodiac boats on the uninhabited island of Eniyabanare, situated in the Ryukyu chain just south of Kyushu. The drill was well publicized, to underscore Japan’s determination to protect its southern island chain. Most of the amphibious assets currently available to Japan were utilized in the exercise, including destroyers, fighters and troop carriers.

The question is whether these ships, especially the Izumo, could be refitted to carry fixed-wing aircraft turning them into real carriers. Most experts say no – they could not carry these aircraft without extensive refitting. They lack catapults and slanted bows to facilitate take-offs.

The elevators are probably not strong enough to lift fully fueled and armed fighters, and there is little extra space for aviation gasoline and munitions (though they can accommodate more than four hundred civilians and they have fully equipped surgeries to help in one of their other missions – disaster relief).

So far, there is little evidence that Japan is interested in obtaining the naval version of the American-made F-35 in either its short-term or long-term planning. It is also uncertain whether these vessels and a relatively small complement of maybe ten fighters could contribute much in the event of war with China. They would provide mobile bases at sea nearer the battlefield than mainland Japan, but more bases could alternatively be created by building airfields on the Ryukyu islands.

China, of course, recently commissioned its first aircraft carrier, which was purchased from Ukraine. Their vessel is an undisputed aircraft carrier and at 70,000 tonnes is about triple the size of the Izumo. It also carries a complement of fixed-wing jet fighters, although the lack of catapults limits its offensive capabilities since the planes can’t leave the carrier fully armed. It is generally considered a training craft but also a harbinger of bigger things to come.

Todd Crowell is the author of The Coming War between China and Japan published as an Amazon Single.