TOKYO — Last month's commissioning of the Japanese helicopter carrier Izumo spearheads the buildup of Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) antisubmarine capabilities, analysts said.
Defense Minister Gen Nakatani led the March 25 commissioning of the 248-meter, 24,000-ton helicopter carrier, Japan's largest postwar naval vessel, capable of carrying seven Mitsubishi-built SH-60K antisubmarine warfare (ASW) helicopters and seven AgustaWestland MCM-101 mine countermeasure helicopters and up to 400 troops.
In this ASW role, Izumo forms the third of a four-ship force, which will include another ship in the same class, which is under construction and should enter the fleet around 2017. These two ships will join two 18,300-ton Hyuga-class helicopter carriers commissioned in 2009 and 2011, replacing two smaller Shirane- and two Haruna class-DDHs.
On face value, the Izumo class fits into a longer term MSDF strategy to counter evolving maritime threats from the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), North Korea, and to a lesser extent, the Russian Pacific Fleet, said Guy Stitt, president, AMI International. These threats include increasing numbers of diesel-electric submarines armed with heavyweight torpedoes and anti-ship missiles operating in the littorals with greater range, endurance and stealth, and more strategically, the PLAN's development of missile subs and a nuclear second-strike capability.
"The Izumo brings a unique multimission capability for ASW, mine warfare and organic self-defense, as well as the ability to conduct sustained operations employing unmanned vehicles," Stitt said.
"The Izumo class carries up to 14 helos [ASW and MCM type]. It has a higher sortie rate, more ASW coverage due to the size of the air wing than the Hyuga class," he added.
The "multirole" and "multipurpose" nature of the Izumo class has already led to suspicions that the Izumo is an aircraft carrier in all but name. There certainly is scope within the emerging US-Japan security architecture for such a role. Already the updated US-Japan security agreement identifies Japan as a peer with the US, requiring Japan to take a proactive approach to acquire platforms and weapons, cooperate seamlessly with the US, and conduct operations to support UN operations and international coalitions.
Reflecting this, the Izumo class is capable of carrying USMV-22 Ospreys and the Lockheed Martin F-35B combat jet for expanded amphibious/strike warfare missions. The Izumo also carries an advanced hull-mounted sonar and point defense anti-air warfare systems, the Sea Rolling Airframe Missile and Phalanx close-in weapon system, Stitt said.
"The Izumo class will allow the JMSDF to conduct coordinated multimission [ASW, amphibious and MCM] operations as part of an amphibious group or permissive non-combatant type operations" such as humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR) in the Asia Pacific region, he said.
Apart from being the centerpiece of a hunting flotilla, the Izumo class will escort convoys and is designed to incorporate a variety of functions from ASW to HADR, said Alessio Patalano, a naval expert at the Department of War Studies, King's College, London.
"In this sense, the Izumo is not a carrier but intended as a platform for power projection. It is designed to offer the option to expand fleet air defense or support short-distance amphibious raids. Izumo maximizes a variety of functions, from ASW to HADR, showing the extent of Japan's seriousness as a responsible stakeholder in international security," he said.
The command-and-control function is the main reason why the Japanese government is looking to commission four ships, in addition to the need to conduct multiple operations simultaneously. The MSDF requires one DDH for each of the MSDF's four escort flotillas tasked with ensuring the integrity of Japan's sea lines of communication during any regional or national defense contingency, said Corey Wallace, a Japan security policy expert at New Zealand's University of Auckland.
Unless there is a significant reorganization of its fleet structure, the MSDF will not acquire more than four DDHs, and the projected fleet does give Japan a platform for further expansion, he said.
"Future needs for large tonnage ships will probably be centered on acquiring amphibious vessels such as an LHD to support Japan's amphibious rapid deployment brigade, or perhaps a specialist hospital ship for HADR operations.
"It may be possible that … an additional, naval aviation-oriented role will be added to Japan's DDHs' operational repertoire, and Japan may thus require additional vessels," Wallace said.
The Izumo demonstrates how Japan is starting to build up key maritime force multipliers backed by an increasingly modern and balanced fleet structure centered on flexible big-deck aviation and amphibious ships, a world-class submarine force, and Aegis-equipped destroyers, said Bob Nugent, Affiliate Consultant at AMI International.
However, Nugent said questions remain about how Japan can sustain or expand this maritime modernization with an economy that has shown little or no growth over the past decade, and has scant prospect of any significant jumps in GDP to finance additional naval spending over the next decade.
According to AMI's estimates, Japan's annual spending on the sea service is roughly US $12 billion. While this compares favorably with certain naval peers in the Asia-Pacific region — Australia spends about $10 billion and South Korea between $8 billion and $9 billion — China is already spending about $65 billion on its Navy.
"[As] the costs of building and operating the most modern ships and submarines continue to go up, Japan faces some fiscal challenges in sustaining fleet development in the future. Nor does it appear likely that Japan will reallocate a static defense budget to increase the naval share — now at roughly a quarter of annual defense spending," Nugent said.
Nugent predicted that Japan will have to start looking at its own version of the US offset strategy.
"I expect Japan will boost investment in key force multiplier technologies … with regional allies and friendly states, to enhance future maritime system and platform development. These would include … unmanned systems, space and maritime ISR, advanced energy and propulsion systems … and advanced sensor integration on future ship designs," he said.