Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Japan Has a Helicopter Destroyer -- and It's Making China Nervous

By Rich Smith - Dec 23, 2013 at 11:57AM

You’re reading a free article with opinions that may differ from The Motley Fool’s Premium Investing Services. Become a Motley Fool member today to get instant access to our top analyst recommendations, in-depth research, investing resources, and more. Learn More

When is an aircraft carrier not technically an aircraft carrier? Read on to find the answer.

Asia's in an uproar over China's declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ -- one that encompasses 1 million square miles of the East China Sea. Japan, Korea, and even the U.S. have all sent planes to overfly the new ADIZ. In Japan, they're talking about beefing up their air force, establishing a new marine corps -- maybe even building their first aircraft carrier since WWII.

China's said to be incensed by Japan's move, and considering the countries' history together, you can imagine why...


Imperial Japanese Navy cruiser Izumo, at port in occupied Shanghai, 1937. Source: Wikimedia Commons

But in fact, Japan may already have an aircraft carrier. In fact... they may already have two.

Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter destroyer JS Hyuga (DDH 181). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Over the past four years, Japan has commissioned two new ships that, by some definitions, fit the definition of "aircraft carrier." The JS Hyuga and JS Ise weigh in at 14,000 tons displacement each, and are twice as big as the Haruna-class ships they replaced. Japan calls the new vessels "helicopter destroyers," referring to their destroyer-scale size (about the same size as America's Zumwalt-class destroyer), and the fact that the flat-topped vessels carry an aerial force of helicopters.

But are they really "aircraft carriers?" For perspective, here's roughly how a Hyuga-class vessel looks relative to a "real" aircraft carrier such as the USS George Washington (CVN 73):


JS Hyuga steaming in formation with USS George Washington. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Small, right? But with each new iteration, Japan's helicopter destroyers are getting bigger. In August, Japan floated the new JS Izumo, the first of a planned two-ship production run that will add significant punching power to the Japanese fleet. Thirty-four percent larger than Hyuga, the Izumo and her sister ship (as yet unnamed) are due to be commissioned in March 2015 and March 2017, respectively. When they sail, they'll probably be carrying as many as 14 of United Technology's (RTX 0.38%) Sikorsky Seahawk helicopters on board.

What has China worried, though, is their potential to carry Boeing (BA 2.23%) Textron (TXT -1.26%) V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft. That would transform the vessels into aircraft carriers by definition. Were Japan to modify the vessels -- for example, by adding additional heat-shielding to their flight decks -- the Izumos could conceivably be outfitted to launch and land Lockheed Martin's (LMT 1.07%) short-take-off/vertical-landing version of the F-35 stealth fighter jet, the F-35B.

Seeing the future
Whether this is actually Japan's plan for the Izumo-class ships remains unknown. But there does appear to be a trend toward the country increasing the size of its "helicopter destroyers" with each successive generation it builds. This suggests that even if Izumo isn't ultimately outfitted with F-35s, the next carrier Japan builds could be so big, that it only makes sense to put fighter jets on board.

Personally, I think that day is still a ways off -- if for no other reason, then because to date, Japan has only placed orders with Lockheed Martin to supply its Air Self-Defence Force with conventional "A"-variant F-35 fighter jets. The big clue that a "real" aircraft carrier is in the works, of course, will be when Japan places an order for F-35Bs. (To ensure you hear about that development when it happens, stay tuned to our continuing coverage of foreign military sales contracts.)


F-35B on deck. Source: Lockheed Martin

Invest Smarter with The Motley Fool

Join Over 1 Million Premium Members Receiving…

  • New Stock Picks Each Month
  • Detailed Analysis of Companies
  • Model Portfolios
  • Live Streaming During Market Hours
  • And Much More
Get Started Now

Stocks Mentioned

The Boeing Company Stock Quote
The Boeing Company
BA
$122.06 (2.23%) $2.66
Lockheed Martin Corporation Stock Quote
Lockheed Martin Corporation
LMT
$447.54 (1.07%) $4.76
Raytheon Technologies Corporation Stock Quote
Raytheon Technologies Corporation
RTX
$93.56 (0.38%) $0.35
Textron Inc. Stock Quote
Textron Inc.
TXT
$62.60 (-1.26%) $0.80

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

Related Articles

Motley Fool Returns

Motley Fool Stock Advisor

Market-beating stocks from our award-winning service.

Stock Advisor Returns
322%
 
S&P 500 Returns
116%

Calculated by average return of all stock recommendations since inception of the Stock Advisor service in February of 2002. Returns as of 05/26/2022.

Discounted offers are only available to new members. Stock Advisor list price is $199 per year.

Premium Investing Services

Invest better with The Motley Fool. Get stock recommendations, portfolio guidance, and more from The Motley Fool's premium services.