Japan’s New Ship: Destroyer or Carrier?
Launch of Vessel Prompted by China’s Growing Submarine Force
By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI
Japan’s launch of a helicopter-carrying destroyer may signal its ambition to expand its naval capabilities and eventually join international coalitions abroad.
The 13,500-ton DDH 181 Hyuga, launched on Aug. 23 at the IHI Marine United shipyard in Yokohama, was viewed by some as Japan’s first aircraft carrier since World War II.
The Hyuga has some similarities to an aircraft carrier or amphibious warfare ship, including a flush landing deck and starboard island structure.
But the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) classifies the vessel as a helicopter-carrying destroyer dedicated to anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and humanitarian/logistic support.
A total of four are planned to replace the two Haruna-class and two Shirane-class DDHs in the ASW role.
“The ships are designed to serve as flagships for the JMSDF flotilla, making use of command-and-control functions while operating its shipborne helicopters to conduct ASW, MIA operations, etc., unilaterally or in concert with U.S. forces,” said Sumihiko Kawamura, deputy director of The Okazaki Institute, Tokyo. “The Hyuga is a big step forward to demonstrate Japan’s capability to construct full-fledged aircraft carriers in the future.”
The ship includes the FCS-3, a small version of the Aegis phased-array radar.
“The Hyuga will operate in conjunction with the Atago and Kongo classes, providing an integrated ASW and AAW capability within the FEF [Far Eastern Fleet],” said Richard Dorn, naval analyst for U.S.-based AMI International. “No doubt, the Hyuga, like the Atago and Kongo classes, will be able to integrate with the U.S. fleet, as many Japanese systems are either U.S. systems or based on U.S. systems.”
One Japanese defense analyst with close ties to the Tokyo government suggested the new warship will engage in operations beyond those involving simple helicopters, and may be outfitted with more advanced fighters in the future.
“It cannot be denied that the launch of Hyuga is targeted at carrying the Harriers or F-35s in the future,” the analyst said. “It is only natural given Japan-U.S. joint operations in the future.”
Public images of the ship were not made immediately available.
The ship will carry three SH-60J anti-submarine helicopters and one CH-53E Super Stallion multipurpose helicopter. It can handle 11 aircraft in its hangar. It also has surface-to-air missiles, ASW torpedoes and two Phalanx air defense systems.
“Just as the JMSDF’s other Aegis-class ships are understated as destroyers, so is the SDF Hyuga understated as a destroyer,” Peter Woolley, author of the book, “Japan’s Navy: Politics and Paradox,” said. “It is a light carrier. But it is similar to light carriers maintained by European nations including Britain, Italy and Spain. Thailand also has a light carrier exported from Spain.”
The ship is named for a World War II-era hybrid battleship/carrier that could carry 22 fighters, a decision not lost on defense analysts.
“The DDHs are designated as destroyers so as to avoid the taboo on Japan’s possession of aircraft carriers. The DDHs, though, are a different sort of vessel,” said Christopher Hughes, author of the book, “Japan’s Re-emergence as a Normal Military Power.”
Hughes said the class are destroyers “in the sense that they have the Aegis system, the [vertical launch system] for missiles, and the helicopters, all allowing Japan to engage in anti-submarine warfare,” he said.
“But they also clearly are following the trend with other navies by giving Japan a flexible asset suitable for a number of roles, including anti-ship activities, support for amphibious landings, search and rescue, emergency evacuations, etc.
“The DDHs really are a form of mini-helicopter carrier, although still relatively small in tonnage, but allowing Japan to rehearse helicopter/aircraft carrier technologies,” Hughes said.
Japan’s decision to build an ASW pseudo-carrier was partly motivated by the growing Chinese submarine force. China has acquired eight Russian-built Kilo-class diesel subs over the past 10 years, and recent intrusions into Japanese waters by Chinese submarines have unnerved Tokyo.
“China’s submarine force expansion may have been one of the motivating factors for Japan to develop this class of new ships, but Japan had already maintained a formidable ASW capacity since the Soviet era,” said Yoichiro Sato of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu. “Its fleet of land-based P-3C Orions is fully capable of ASW operations in Japan’s neighborhood.”
The ship’s expanded aviation capabilities will give the Japanese Navy more flexibility in humanitarian and logistic support for U.S. and U.N. operations.
“While the new ship may enable Japan to conduct ASW operations in distant waters, the more immediate and likely applications seem to be disaster relief and logistic operations,” Sato said. “These operations, however, often require interoperability between the Maritime SDF [Self-Defense Force] and the Ground SDF, and Japan is notoriously poor at that.”
Woolley agrees: “The launching of JDS Hyuga is a confirmation that in the post-Soviet era, Japan intends to maintain a modern and extremely competent naval force, expand its range of capabilities at sea, and prepare for the possibilities of participating in U.N. or U.S. coalition operations further abroad.”