The Japanese government has decided to send one of its helicopter destroyers on a two month deployment through the Indo-Pacific, according to Japanese officials cited in a recent Reuters report. The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force’s (MSDF) JS Kaga, the second ship of Japan’s Izumo-class helicopter destroyers, will enter the South China Sea on its way to the Indian Ocean in a deployment expected to begin in September. The vessel will be accompanied by an escort vessel.
“This is part Japan’s efforts to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific,” one official that spoke to Reuters said, adding that JS Kaga may conduct ad hoc military exercises with partner navies in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean region. According to Reuters, JS Kaga will make port calls in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India.
Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2018 in Singapore, Japanese Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera emphasized his country’s support for a free and open Indo-Pacific. “The Indo-Pacific is increasingly becoming the center of the global economy, and we hope to contribute to efforts to maintain it as a free, open and rule-based global commons that can bring health and prosperity to all countries in the region,” he said. “Japan seeks to enhance a free and open Indo-Pacific as part of its regional strategy.”
Tokyo dispatched JS Izumo on a multiple month deployment last year to the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean last year as well, where the vessel joined U.S. and Indian naval vessels in the Malabar exercise, which had a strong anti-submarine warfare component.
The MSDF’s deployment of its largest warships to the Indian Ocean two years in a row underlines Japan’s commitment to emphasizing its interest in the security of critical sea lanes of communication in the region and in the South China Sea, where Tokyo has vocally supported freedom of navigation amid concern about China’s militarization of disputed features. In 2015, the MSDF joined the U.S. Navy for a first-ever bilateral military exercise. Japan has yet to jointly conduct freedom of navigation operations with the U.S. Navy in the region.
The MSDF’s Izumo-class helicopter destroyers are the largest warships in active service today. With a displacement of 27,000 tonnes with a full load, the vessels are effectively the size of small aircraft carriers. The Japanese government is actively exploring the prospect of retroactively modifying the existing Izumo-class vessels to support the short take-off variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35B. These vessels are not equipped with ski-jump, catapults, or arresting mechanisms necessary to operate fixed-wing aircraft.
The Izumo-class is designed as an anti-submarine warfare platform.