Japan's aircraft carrier comeback has been quiet and impressive

The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter destroyer JS Hyuga (DDH-181) underway in the Pacific Ocean as U.S. Navy Sea Hawk helicopters hover nearby. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter destroyer JS Hyuga (DDH-181) underway in the Pacific Ocean as U.S. Navy Sea Hawk helicopters hover nearby. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

Japan once had the second-most powerful carrier force in the world – on December 7, 1941. On that date, they had six fleet carriers and five light carriers in service, with two fleet carriers on the way. That was in comparison to the United States, which had seven fleet carriers in service with a whole lot of carriers on the way.

Today, Japan has regained the number two slot in terms of aircraft carriers. Currently, they have three in service and one on the way. Now, they don’t call their aircraft carriers aircraft carriers. Instead, they are calling them “helicopter destroyers” – to create the impression they are replacing the four vessels of the Haruna and Shirane classes. These two classes each packed two five-inch guns forward along with an eight-cell ASROC launcher. At the rear, they had an over-sized (for a destroyer) hangar capable of carrying three SH-3 Sea King (later four SH-60) helicopters.

Take a good look at the Hyuga-class “helicopter destroyers.” Put it next to a Nimitz-class carrier. Aside from the size difference, the Hyuga design obviously has much more in common with a Nimitz than Japan’s past helicopter destroyers. In fact, the Hyuga and her sister Ise, at just under 19,000 tons, outweighed Thailand’s Chakrinaruebet, which displaces about 11,500 tons, the Italian Giuseppe Garibaldi (10,500 tons), and the Spanish Principe de Asturias (16,700 tons). While Hyuga has a 16-cell Mk 41 VLS capable of firing RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles and RUM-139 Vertical-Launch ASROCs and two triple 324mm torpedo tubes, the primary objective is to support helicopters – up to eighteen of them. In a sense, they are like the last ships named Ise and Hyuga, which ended up as hermaphrodite battleship/carriers at the end of World War II.

It should be noted the Hyuga has also operated V-22s, and the Spanish, Thai, and Italian carriers, while smaller, successfully operated versions of the AV-8B Harrier. With a top speed of thirty knots, the Hyuga can move quickly – and generate a lot of wind over the bow. That is very useful when you want to launch a V/STOL aircraft with a load of bombs and missiles.

Japan’s latest aircraft carrier – helicopter destroyer – is the Izumo. She’s 27,000 tons, carries 28 aircraft, and is roughly the size of Spain’s Juan Carlos I, Italy’s Conte di Cavour, and about 20 percent larger than the now retired Invincible-class carriers the Royal Navy used. It should be noted that the Spanish, Italian, and British carriers operated Harrier jump-jets as well.

The Izumo also dispenses with the heavy anti-air and anti-sub armament that the Hyuga-class carriers carried. Izumo’s only weapons are two Phalanx close-in weapon systems and two Mk 31 launchers for the RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile. Izumo is currently in service while Kaga is on the way. In short, Japan is not confusing the Izumo’s purpose – at least in terms of the equipment on board. Izumo is still called a helicopter destroyer, even though she’s really an aircraft carrier.

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