The Maritime Self-Defense Force’s newest ship has a flight deck its entire length and is nearly the size of the Shokaku and Zuikaku aircraft carriers that took part in the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, yet Japan insists it is not an aircraft carrier.
With a length of about 250 meters and standard displacement of 19,500 tons, the Izumo is the biggest ship in the fleet. Up to nine helicopters can land on its deck at the same time.
Even so, the Defense Ministry and MSDF insist the Izumo, which was launched last summer, is simply a destroyer capable of carrying helicopters.
Media in China and South Korea played up the launching, calling the Izumo a "semi-aircraft carrier" and evidence of a rightward tilt in Japan's policies.
Military journalist Shinichi Kiyotani said: "Under international standards, it is nothing less than an aircraft carrier. The government is gradually expanding its interpretation because it is afraid it could become a political problem."
For its part, Jane's Fighting Ships, a reference book on all the world’s warships released annually in Britain, describes the Izumo as a helicopter carrier.
The Izumo is scheduled to replace the destroyer Shirane based at the MSDF base in Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture, in spring 2015. The Shirane has a standard displacement of 5,200 tons.
The MSDF already has two other helicopter-carrying destroyers with standard displacements in excess of 10,000 tons: the Hyuga and the Ise. Another ship on the same scale as the Izumo is also under construction, meaning the MSDF will eventually maintain four of the large ships.
The Mid-Term Defense Program approved by the Abe Cabinet in December placed the four helicopter-carrying destroyers as the core vessels of the nation’s escort flotillas.
Some ships are defined by their duty, such as submarines and transport ships. However, all large surface ships whose primary mission is combat-related are defined as destroyers.
Katsutoshi Kawano, the chief of staff of the MSDF, said, "Under regulations, there is no other way to refer to the ship but as a destroyer."
The government issued a statement in 1988 on deploying of aircraft carriers. The document stated that the SDF would not possess intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers or attack aircraft carriers.
With Japan maintaining an exclusive defensive posture, aircraft carriers like those used by the U.S. Navy, which are capable of projecting force against both sea and land targets with their fighter jets, were not considered conducive to that policy.
Defense Ministry officials said there are no plans for the Izumo to carry fighter jets. Rather, they insisted the Izumo is a multipurpose ship that will be used to deal with natural disasters or international emergency rescue operations.
To address concerns the Izumo can handle vertical landing fighter jets, such as the F-35B, a high-ranking Defense Ministry official said, "While retrofitting might be possible, it would be impossible realistically since it would require huge amounts of time and money, including the purchase of the jets and the training of the necessary personnel."
Since the end of World War II, one of the MSDF's main missions has been to work in conjunction with the U.S. Navy to search out, and destroy if need be, enemy submarines.
That mission remains unchanged, given that China and other neighboring nations have expanded their submarine fleets.
Previous generation destroyers deployed by the MSDF could only carry from one to three anti-submarine helicopters with the sensors and torpedoes needed to detect and potentially destroy hostile underwater forces.
However, it was decided that if the number of helicopters a destroyer was capable of handling was increased and repairs could take place on deck, search-and-destroy missions could be made more efficient, expanding their scope and length of mission.
Yoji Koda, who once served as the commander of the Self-Defense Fleet, said, "The Izumo is a ship that is fundamentally different from an aircraft carrier. If an aircraft carrier is deemed necessary in the future, it should only be constructed after explaining to the public why it is needed."
The Liberal Democratic Party originally budgeted for the Izumo in fiscal 2010. The launching came after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to power following the LDP's election triumph over the Democratic Party of Japan in December 2012.
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