by Kelsey D. Atherton
Despite being classified a “Helicopter Destroyer,” the new Japanese warship Izumo is neither of those things.
It’s an aircraft carrier, technically, but right now it only carries helicopters, which is a lot less exciting than the gigantic floating runways the United States keeps at the core of her fleet.
With a flat top painted like a stunted runway, it looks a lot like a larger aircraft carrier. There’s speculation that the long-in-development F-35B, a modern fighter capable of short take-offs, will eventually fly from the Izumo’s deck. It might, though the actual military utility of an expensive jet on a ship that could only carry maybe a handful of the plane is minimal.
Future speculation has dominated talk of this new carrier. Is Japan building a more powerful navy? Inherently. What does this mean for the dispute over the Senkaku/Daiyo Islands? Tension, but most moves by navies in the region do that. Neighbors with disputes building stronger militaries is never really a calming thing. Does the Izumo foreshadow this larger carrier depicted in a Japanese magazine hypothetical? It might, but that’s a lot to read into a hypothetical.
What’s overlooked in coverage of the Izumo is any tangible understanding of what the ship actually does. Helicopter carriers, despite all the recent press, are a fairly established class of vehicle. Japan already has two smaller ones. The United States operates nine currently, with 1 Tarawa-class and 8 Wasp-class vessels, and a third class planned. The Wasp-class ships have twice the displacement of the Izumo, and the United States barely considers them aircraft carriers.
Which is not to say that Wasp-class ships don’t carry aircraft. They carry a bunch, with a varied complement of helicopter or Osprey transports, anti-submarine helicopters, VTOL fighters, and attack helicopters. Termed “amphibious assault ships,” their explicit role is to deliver Marines and air support onto a beach quickly, and then support those operations for an extended period of time, thanks to a generous reservoir of cargo. As far as the kind of sea-control capability that “carrier” often implies, the Wasp-class isn’t a slouch, but his hardly designed for the mission on its own, and is just as likely to be deployed for post-Hurricane relief as anything else.
The Wasp-class, and other U.S. Navy helicopter carriers, fit into a larger fleet with more moving parts than Japan’s Izumo, so it’s natural to expect the roles to be different. Still, in looking at the Izumo, the implications of a bigger ship in a small fleet overlook the actual limitations of the vessel. Part of the reason is loose terminology – “carrier” is familiar to many people, but the range from a helicopter carrier to a USS Nimitz is vast, and using carrier to describe the former invokes images of the latter. A way around this is adopting better naval vocabulary, as advocated by Robert Farley, with different classes of carrier falling into a four part system:
- The Nimitz class nuclear supercarrier (CV) remains the cream of the crop, with range, speed, and capacity that substantially exceed any foreign contemporaries.
- The next tier, which we will term (CVL), includes all vessels capable of launching fixed wing aircraft, whether by ski-jump or catapult.
- The third tier (CVE) includes vessels primarily geared towards sea control. These ships can launch vertical and/or short take-off and landing (VSTOL) aircraft and helicopters, but are generally much smaller than CVLs and have considerably less combat capacity.
- Finally, the last tier includes amphibious warships with aviation capability (LHA).
By this system, Japan had two carriers at the LHA tier. The Izumo, as a larger helicopter carrier, counts as CVE, maybe. Until Japan develops a full-sized carrier, probably worth shelving the hyperbolic headlines about the return of the Japanese fleet.