Japan officially unveiled its long-awaited Izumo-class helicopter destroyer (22DDH-class destroyer) on Wednesday, the Associated Press reports.
At 250 meters (820 feet) long, and reportedly displacing 24,000 tons, the ship can carry 14 helicopters. It is the largest warship Japan has fielded since WWII, and about 50 percent bigger (in terms of displacement) than Japan’s current largest ship, the Hyuga-class helicopter destroyer.
The unveiling of the vessel, which will be the third helicopter carrier in the Japan Maritime Self Defense Forces’ (JMSDF) fleet, coincides with the 68th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The 22DDH-Class Destroyer was first order in 2009 and is expected to be commissioned into the fleet in 2015.
Tokyo has said the Izumo-class destroyer will be used for anti-submarine warfare, border-area surveillance missions and to transport personnel to the sites of natural disasters.
However, the vessel has clearly unnerved China, where it has received extensive coverage in the state media.
Commenting on the 22DDH on Wednesday, China’s Defense Ministry said, “We are concerned over Japan's constant expansion of its military equipment. Japan's Asian neighbors and the international community need to be highly vigilant about this trend. Japan should learn from history, adhere to its policy of self-defense and abide by its promise to take the road of peaceful development.”
Li Daguang, a professor at the PLA’s National Defense University, similarly called the vessel an “aircraft carrier in disguise.”
Japan’s pacifist constitution would seemingly prohibit it from operating aircraft carriers. However, Li is not alone in having these suspicions. Commentators have been warning for years that this is a destroyer in name only and is built so that it is could theoretically later be equipped with combat aircraft such as the F-35B, the short takeoff and vertical landing variant of the Joint Strike Fighter.
Sources in Japan have countered this speculation by suggesting that the reason for the increase in the 22DDH’s size over the Hyuga-class is that Japan intends to use the V22 Osprey as the main aircraft it flies off the vessel. There is no official confirmation on this; however, it is notable that Japan is now looking at buying the V22 Osprey.
In reality, it seems likely that how Japan uses the 22DDH will depend on how the regional security situation develops. By building a pseudo-carrier, and maintaining a fleet of combat aircraft, Tokyo will preserve the option of deploying an aircraft carrier after a certain amount of training, which could potentially be reduced by practicing take-off and landing exercises from U.S. carriers.
In this sense, the 22DDH might not be so different from Japan’s breakout nuclear capacity.