Launch of Japan’s new warship rattles anchor chains in the Pacific

World Review – August 28, 2013

JAPAN launched its new warship – JS Izumo – a flat-topped helicopter carrier on August 6, 2013. It is the lead ship in the Izumo class of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, and designated DDH 183 which indicates its main mission is anti-submarine warfare, says geopolitics and foreign policy writer Kevin Brent.

Izumo would be used in wartime to hunt and attack enemy submarines to prevent them from choking off Japanese seaborne commerce. Lack of a dedicated anti-submarine effort was a painful lesson for Japan during the Second World War.

However, critics say the Izumo, though designed to carry 14 helicopters, is basically an aircraft carrier. She does not have a well deck or a stern gate for landing craft as do America’s comparable Wasp Class Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) vessels. Though only half the displacement of those 40,000 ton platforms, Izumo still has a flight deck capable of handling Short Take Off and Landing (STOL) aircraft such as the US’s new F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, (JSF).

But, what has got anchor chains rattling in the Pacific about the Izumo is Japan’s naval history – specifically in the Second World War. While Britain originally pioneered the aircraft carrier concept, it was Japan alone which not only developed carrier battle groups but, was also the first to deploy them in combat in the 1930s. Japan put into practice what is today a vital tool of deterrence and force projection by the US Navy.

There is however a tendency to compare all other aircraft carriers with the US Navy’s Nimitz class 90,000 plus ton nuclear powered super-carriers and their well-developed multi-role capabilities. But these super-carriers exist for reasons that do not apply to any other navy.

As the Cold War took hold after 1947, strategic decision-makers in Washington wanted carriers with the same aerial strike power as a land-based combat air wing. US carriers also had to be able to hunt submarines, provide airborne early warning, coordinate anti-surface warfare in an open naval battle, and be the base of air-sea rescue for, and the ‘airport’ of, their respective task forces.

No other naval power that has, or seeks to build, aircraft carriers has that combination of needs. China, if it wants to challenge the US Navy, theoretically has. But, its one Russian-built carrier is incapable of meeting them never mind that China is nearly 80 years behind the curve in development of doctrine, techniques and the mere culture of a ‘brown shoe navy’ (aviation officers) to operate multi-role carriers the way the US Navy operates them today.

This very lack of needs is the reason Japan’s launch of the Izumo has hit a raw nerve. If you are the Chief of Naval Operations of a regional power like Japan, India, Russia or China, and have to make do with a mid-sized or light carrier and need it to have a sting, then you operate it as an ‘attack carrier’ pre-Cold War style; and you can do that precisely because your carriers do not have all the multi-role tasking America’s carriers have.

Japan’s Izumo is no attack carrier, nor are America’s LHD platforms. Neither class of vessel has the speed of 30-plus knots that an attack carrier needs to position itself to launch and recover strike aircraft in a hurry or take evasive action in open sea warfare against incoming missiles, torpedoes and enemy aircraft and possibly surface combatants.

If however, Japan intends to re-revolutionize carrier task forces ‘back to the future’ of the attack carrier then Izumo is but a small step in that direction. Japan would need to build bigger and faster carriers comparable with India’s newly-launched aircraft carrier INS Vikrant. But, Japan has the technical knowledge and prior experience of successful carrier development and deployment in battle to make that happen fairly easily.

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