Half-steps and Helicarriers

by Kelsey D. Atherton

Despite being classified a “Helicopter Destroyer,” the new Japanese warship Izumo is neither of those things.

Totally not  a carrier

Japan’s Helicopter Destroyer DDH183 Izumo

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.

This entry was posted in Armed Forces, English, International, Kelsey Atherton, Sea Powers, Technology.

6 Responses to Half-steps and Helicarriers

  1. According to Kyle Mizokami “[t]he appearance of the Izumo has triggered a negative reaction throughout East Asia, in a time when territorial squabbling has heightened historical tensions. It is perhaps no surprise that the even the name Izumo itself has historical baggage: the original Izumo, an armored cruiser that participated in the Battle of Tsushima, was purchased with reparations from the first Sino-Japanese War. There is little doubt all parties, particularly the Chinese, are aware of the lineage.”

    Concerning the technical specification, Mizokami writes that the ship measures “800 feet in length with a beam of 124 feet and a displacement of 19,500 tons. It will have a crew of approximately 470. The flight deck and hangar are designed to accommodate up to 14 helicopters, including two CH-47 Chinooks. The flight deck is sufficiently large to allow simultaneous flight operations by up to five helicopters. [...] there are no obvious technical obstacles to the Izumo carrying F-35Bs fighters. Some improvements the Izumo sports over the previous Hyuga class—such as moving defensive armament off the flight deck, and moving an elevator behind the island—support theories involving fixed-wing aircraft. Publicly, the JMSDF denies that the ships will be equipped with the F-35B.”

    Currently, there is a shipbuilding boom in East Asia. South Korea has the Dokdo, an amphibious assault ship. China has the Liaoning – the only Asian carrier with fixed-wing aviation capability. For their Pacific fleet, Russia has ordered two Mistral-class LHDs from France and Asutralia has ordered two Canberra-class LHDs. In addition to the Izumo, Japan has three LSTs of the Osumi class, and the two ships of the Hyuga class.

    Source: Kyle Mizokami, “Japanese ‘Helicopter Destroyer’ Stirs Regional Tensions“, USNI News, 12.08.2013. For more information see also Patrick Truffer, “The Pivot to East Asia … or how to balance the emerging power of China“, offiziere.ch, 24.06.2013.

  2. By the way, India launched its own aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant, which should come into full service in 2018 and cost 5 Billion US-Dollars (cf.: Manjunath Kiran, “India Hits ‘Milestone’ with Launch of Own Aircraft Carrier“, DefenseNews, 12.08.2013).

    By the way, India launched its own aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant, which should come into full service in 2018 and cost 5 Billion US-Dollars (cf.: Manjunath Kiran, “India Hits ‘Milestone’ with Launch of Own Aircraft Carrier“, DefenseNews, 12.08.2013).

    Tugboats guide the indigenously built aircraft carrier INS Vikrant as it leaves the Cochin Shipyard after the launch ceremony in Kochi. When the INS Vikrant comes into full service in 2018, India will become the fifth nation to have designed and built its own aircraft carrier, pushing ahead of China to join an elite club that includes Britain, France, Russia and the United States. (Manjunath Kiran / AFP / 12.08.2013)

    Photo: Tugboats guide the indigenously built aircraft carrier INS Vikrant as it leaves the Cochin Shipyard after the launch ceremony in Kochi. When the INS Vikrant comes into full service in 2018, India will become the fifth nation to have designed and built its own aircraft carrier, pushing ahead of China to join an elite club that includes Britain, France, Russia and the United States. (Manjunath Kiran / AFP / 12.08.2013)

  3. Two huge explosions occurred on the Indian submarine “INS Sindhurakshak” berthed in Mumbai after midnight on Thursday, August 15. 18 sailors aboard are feared dead and clouds India’s Naval Progress. For more information see Pratyush, “Mumbai Submarine Explosion Clouds India’s Naval Progress“, The Diplomat, 15.08.2013.

  4. Pingback: So Many Floaty Movey Flyer Holders… - Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money

  5. Pingback: Who is Ahead in Asia’s Carrier Arms Race? | Offiziere.ch

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