Japan’s un-carrier

Hyuga class helicopter carrier alongside US aircraft carrier

Pictured above is Japan’s Hyuga-class “helicopter destroyer” (different angle) alongside the USS George Washington (see opposite angle here). It is hard to see from this angle but there is a significant size difference. The George Washington is a Nimitz class carrier weighing in at 97,000 tons and capable of 85 aircraft. The Hyuga is just 13,950 tons and carries only 11 helicopters. Still, the Hyuga is the MSDF’s biggest ship to date.

The above is a pretty historic scene. The Hyuga is the first of its class and was commissioned earlier this year. As Scoop Deck notes: “it’s neat that the last time Japan and the U.S. both fielded aircraft carriers, they were at war”.

“Aircraft carrier”?

The Hyuga, like the earlier commissioned Osumi class LST, is a controversial ship. Both have carrier-like capabilities despite Japan’s 1988 declaration that it would never build aircraft carriers again. Thus, these ships are carefully designed to have little to no power projection capabilities. The Hyuga is described as a “destroyer” in Japanese (護衛艦) because of its role as an escort ship. This is in contrast to the central command and control role that US aircraft carriers play. Yet unlike traditional DDH the Hyuga has a longish flat-top, which makes it controversial. This means it can handle VSTOL aircraft such as Harriers and F-35s (which, by the way, Japan does not have). Here is a clip of it in action:

The Hyuga is for deploying helicopters in conducting amphibious operations, humanitarian missions and anti-submarine warfare. Rather than a revolutionary procurement in terms of Japan’s constitution, this is more of an evolution in terms of the kinds of operations Japan currently conducts (ie. sweeping sea lanes for the USN, disaster response in Southeast Asia, etc.). The Hyuga is a sign of Japanese innovation under military restriction. Simultaneously, it can be viewed as practice run for any carrier building program Japan may potentially decide to pursue in the future. Despite these controversies, the above picture is still pretty amazing.

H/T to Fred Z and Dan who shared this through Google Reader.

About Younghusband

Sir Francis Edward Younghusband (1863-1942) was a British explorer, army officer, military-political officer, and foreign correspondent born in India who led expeditions into Manchuria, Kashgar, and Tibet. He three times tried and failed to scale Mt. Everest and journeyed from China to India, crossing the Gobi desert and the Mustagh Pass (alt. c.19,000 ft/5,791 m) of the Karakoram mountain range in modern day Pakistan. Convinced of Russian designs on British interests in India, Younghusband proactively engaged in the nineteenth century spying and conflict over Central Asia between the British and the Russians known as the Great Game. "Younghusband" is a Canadian who has spent a number of years bouncing back and forth between his home country and Japan. Fluent in Japanese and English with experience in numerous other languages from Spanish to Georgian, Younghusband has travelled throughout Asia. He graduated with an MA from the War Studies Department at the Royal Military College of Canada, where he focussed on the Japanese oil industry and energy security issues. He has recently returned to Canada from Japan, and is working in the technology sector.
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10 Responses to Japan’s un-carrier

  1. M Brueschke says:

    This is similar to how the Soviets classed their carriers and helicopter carriers as not carriers so they wouldn’t violate the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Turkish Straits. They called them, “heavy aircraft carrying cruisers”.

  2. Aceface says:

    “Japan’s 1988 declaration that it would never build aircraft carriers again.”

    I thought the declaration was “not to build attack type aircraft carriers攻撃型空母”….

  3. Younghusband says:

    Exactly, Aceface. The exact quote is:

    「攻撃型空母を自衛隊が保有することは許されない」

    “Normal” aircraft carriers, if I may use that term, are about naval aviation and air superiority on the sea. A non-attack carrier seems a contradiction. That is why these ships have limited power projection capabilities.

    I don’t think it is a big deal really. But the Chinese may not feel the same way.

  4. feeblemind says:

    Interesting post and comments.

  5. McKellar says:

    They can be used as escort carriers with ASW helos, or as amphibs with a different set of helicopters. The former is purely defensive, the latter has a limited offensive capability, but without any ability to defend against enemy aircraft. This makes the ships useful for their ostensible roles, fighting piracy and aiding in relief efforts, but makes them useless as offensive weapons against a well-armed foe, unless, of course, they operate alongside U.S. carriers or in range of land-based fighters.

    A real ‘attack’ carrier is capable of launching 1st rate fighter aircraft, thus allowing the owner to project power far beyond their borders. The F-35B might give these ships that capability, though in slight numbers.

    Their real significance, as Younghusband points out, is that they build (or keep alive) a tradition of naval/carrier aviation in the Japanese navy, so if they want to build a real carrier decades from now, they have enough experienced NCOs and officers, as well as a training infrastructure, to make it effective.

    Coincidentally, the ships’ WWII predecessors where also ‘un-carriers’ – battleship/carrier hybrids:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_battleship_Ise

  6. Alfred Russel Wallace says:

    Fascinating – will support continue with the new administration?

  7. Younghusband says:

    We’ll see. These things are decided under 5 year plans. The next National Defense Program Guidelines should be out next month. It may be too late for the DPJ to make any big changes even of they wanted to.

  8. Sionnac says:

    This is interesting given the speculation that aircraft carriers are extremely vulnerable in the modern environment. There was an infamous war game in the Persian Gulf a few years where the Op-Ror commander managed to maul a carrier fleet with swarms of light craft and planes. And on the other hand weren’t the Chinese developing some sort of ballistic missile that could target large carriers? That being said, it seems like this would be a very effective anti-piracy tool.

  9. Jupiter says:

    Since Japan is shopping for a new fighter and their F-22 dreams fell through, isn’t there a healthy chance that they’ll eventually pursue the F-35? I’d have to laugh if Japan were to field an aircraft carrier before China gets theirs on the water.

  10. Younghusband says:

    Eventually, maybe. But the current plan is simply to “modernize” the current F-15 series. The Mid-Term Defense Program meetings will start next year. That is where they will decide which direction to go, and whether they will pursue a new F-X platform.