Argument

Is Japan’s New ‘Helicopter Destroyer’ an ‘Aircraft Carrier’?

The war of words between China and Japan over a new boat tells us a lot about the shifting balance of power in the Pacific.

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Size matters. But rhetoric matters even more. Is the Izumo, the ship Japan calls a “helicopter destroyer,” really an “aircraft carrier in disguise,” as Chinese commentators allege? The vessel was commissioned into the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) in late March: Judging from the number of stories repeating the phrase “aircraft carrier in disguise” since then, many foreign commentators seem to think so. This suggests that Beijing, not Tokyo, is telling the more compelling story about Japan’s purposes in putting aviation-capable ships to sea.

This comes as little shock. For all its virtues, democratic Japan isn’t forceful about or adept at telling its story when it comes to military matters. But seizing control of language comes as second nature to China’s ruling Communist Party — descended from founding chairman Mao Zedong, who taught that peacetime politics is merely war without bloodshed and that there can never be too much deception in war. Beijing isn’t citing Japan’s bloody past just to fire up patriotic Chinese. Calibrating language to foreign audiences is standard practice for Chinese officialdom. In this case, the message is that Japan’s imperial itch is back; the island nation is rearming to terrorize Asia once again; Asians should worry and Washington should abandon its long-standing ally lest it be complicit in aggression.

Depicting the Izumo as an aircraft carrier in disguise makes for good spin. Chinese commentators can draw false implications from a mostly true yarn about sea power, casting a harmless Japanese undertaking as a precursor to aggression. The core of the Chinese tale: that the JMSDF is constructing a fleet of front-line aircraft carriers resembling those that flew the banner of imperial Japan, and is doing so under the guise of augmenting its fleet of destroyers. Is the Izumo an aircraft carrier? Yes, it’s the latest in a series of JMSDF light aircraft carriers, all designated helicopter destroyers.

But Tokyo forgoes the label “aircraft carrier” to avoid dredging up memories of its imperial, militarist past. China cries foul, accusing it of building a new carrier force while dissembling about its purposes. Beijing appears to have the upper hand in the battle of narratives about carrier aviation.

The Chinese do a great job drawing sinister implications from a superficially accurate comparison between contemporary and World War II-era carriers. But it’s absurd to depict the Izumo — as CNN did — as a warship “as large as the storied Yamato-class battleships which fought U.S. naval forces in the Pacific theater of World War II.” Yes, the two warships are both a bit over 800 feet long, but the resemblance stops there. The Yamato was an armored behemoth boasting triple the tonnage of the Izumo, a 24,000-ton light aircraft carrier. These ships also had/have dramatically different purposes. Battleships blasted away at enemy battleships with their massive guns, while carriers use embarked aircraft to duel enemy fleets and pummel shore targets.

Chinese commentators know better than to compare the Izumo to the Yamato or its sister ship, Musashi, history’s largest battleships. Indeed, mentioning Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) battleships rattles few these days. It has been 23 years since the world’s last battleship was retired, and more than 70 years since carriers replaced battleships as the fleet’s heavy hitters. And it’s worth remembering that carrier-based aircraft sent the Musashi to the bottom.

With that history, battleships don’t resonate viscerally the way aircraft carriers do. To alarm foreign audiences about Japan’s ambitions, evoking IJN carriers is the way to go. Likening the Izumo to, say, the Soryu — a flattop that struck at Pearl Harbor, among other exploits — conjures up more lurid images than a battleship that suffered an ignominious fate. Those images remind Asians of IJN task forces that once rampaged across the Pacific and Indian oceans, and Americans of Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway. Plus, the Izumo’s dimensions — tonnage, length, speed — really are similar to those of IJN carriers. That resemblance lends credence to Chinese claims that the Izumo constitutes the second coming of the Imperial Japanese Navy — and thus proof that Japan is reverting to militarism.

But raw measures such as length and tonnage mislead. IJN flattops ranked among the preeminent warships of their day. And they were capacious for their time, carrying scores of propeller-driven warplanes, then the state-of-the-art for naval aviation. Combat aircraft, though, have morphed almost beyond recognition since 1945. They’re jet-propelled, bigger, and vastly more sophisticated; they guzzle more fuel and demand more repair shops and other support infrastructure.

In short, they take up more space — meaning that present-day ships of World War II dimensions have room for only a small fraction of the number of aircraft their counterparts used to carry. The Izumo will sport only 23 helicopters, whereas IJN flattops disgorged dozens of fighters and attack planes. While Japanese defense officials disclaim any plans to operate jets from the Izumo’s deck, the vessel could conceivably undergo modification to operate up to 17 F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter/attack jets. (Its helicopters would have to stay behind to make room for a fighter squadron that large.) Ergo, it could have some offensive potential following a refit of significant proportions.

But even an F-35 squadron would only constitute a modest-sized modern “air wing,” the term for a flattop’s complement of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. It would be smaller than the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning’s 36-plane air wing and only about one-quarter the complement carried onboard a U.S. Navy nuclear-powered carrier.

So, yes, Chinese observers and others are correct to call the Izumo an aircraft carrier. And, yes, its proportions are comparable to those of IJN flattops. But Chinese analysts are wrong to imply that Japan has vaulted into the front rank of carrier navies or has done something baleful by putting the ship to sea.

During World War II, a 24,000-ton ship stood at the forefront of air combat at sea. Today, it’s remote from being a front-line aircraft carrier. Beijing may be right to raise the alarm should the JMSDF start building carriers comparable in size and capability to 100,000-ton U.S. Navy nuclear-powered carriers or even the 70,000-ton Liaoning. But that’s far-fetched for a country that informally caps defense spending at 1 percent of GDP — a token sum.

Furthermore, there would be plenty of advance warning before the JMSDF attempted such a leap in capability. In all likelihood, a big-deck carrier project would bust the defense budget. The political uproar surrounding such a decision would loudly telegraph Japan’s intentions. Such a breakout is extremely doubtful: Japanese naval aviation promises to remain a humble affair.

So the Izumo is an aircraft carrier of sorts. But is it in disguise, as Chinese commentators allege? Is Tokyo disingenuous for branding it as a type of destroyer? Maybe. But if so, the JMSDF is far from unusual in employing soothing terminology to brand its warships. Like many nations throughout history, it’s aiming to mollify foreign or domestic audiences. Hence the name game.

The battleship USS Maine constitutes one precedent. The Maine, whose 1898 sinking helped precipitate the Spanish-American War, was built as an “armored cruiser” before being reclassified as a “second-class battleship.” The Navy leadership designated some of the Maine’s successors as “coastal-defense battleships,” lest Americans wary of European entanglements think Washington was constructing a navy on the sly to fight far from home. The name assuaged such worries, conveying defensive purpose. Only after the Spanish-American War did Americans grow accustomed to the idea of foreign naval wars, letting the Navy jettison this unwieldy terminology. Battleships were forthrightly dubbed battleships from then on.

Fast-forward a few decades. To get around the post-World War I naval arms accords, Germany built Panzerschiffe — “armored ships” so formidable that British naval officers took to calling them “pocket battleships.” Berlin reclassified them as “heavy cruisers” after the outbreak of World War II. The pocket battleship Graf Spee was a terror of the seas before a British task force overwhelmed it. Such linguistic misdirection was commonplace at one time.

Nor is misleading language purely an artifact from long ago. The Soviet navy, for example, dubbed its premier aircraft carriers “aircraft-carrying cruisers” even though their dimensions were comparable to early American supercarriers.

Rather than indulging in linguistic trickery, however, Soviet naval officials had solid technical grounds for making such a distinction. As the name implies, aircraft-carrying cruisers merged characteristics from cruisers and aircraft carriers. They were festooned with guns and missiles, like heavy surface warships. Yet they also operated middling-sized air wings from their flight decks. They were indeed both cruisers and carriers. Indeed, it took thoroughgoing refits to convert the aircraft-carrying cruisers Admiral Gorshkov and Varyag for service as traditional aircraft carriers (in today’s Indian and Chinese navies, respectively). Navies don’t always pick oddball terms for political reasons.

Does eliding inconvenient realities to calm fears amount to concealing malign intent? Not necessarily. There are three yardsticks for evaluating the JMSDF’s carrier aspirations: The U.S. Navy entered the age of steam soft-pedaling its battle capacity in order to placate domestic sentiment. Interwar Germany pulled a sleight of hand to get around its treaty commitments. The Soviet navy labeled its carriers cruisers for sound technical reasons.

Which pattern fits the Izumo best? The fin de siècle U.S. Navy. Japan’s “peace” constitution is loosely analogous to 19th-century America’s tradition of non-entanglement in foreign diplomacy and war. Except Japan’s pacifism is far more stringent: Tokyo has to ameliorate not only widespread anti-war sentiment at home but suspicions of martial behavior among Asians — especially in countries that once fell under Japan’s yoke. Pacifism is a cultural force no Japanese government flouts lightly.

Calling a light aircraft carrier a destroyer, then, signals that Tokyo rejects rearmament that would defy democratic Japan’s anti-war traditions. The Izumo is an impressive warship that could be outfitted for offensive missions. And Japan can experiment with the ship, learning lessons that would advance its capacity to build and operate front-line carriers. But predicting that it will indeed pursue a carrier fleet is premature in the extreme. Beijing excels at pedantry and at interpreting Japanese policies in the most conspiratorial light possible. In branding terms, the Izumo is the JMSDF’s answer to a coastal-defense battleship — a vessel whose designation expresses the leadership’s defensive outlook.

How much does it matter whether Beijing defines the terms of maritime debate? Not much. It’s doubtful Beijing will loosen the U.S.-Japan alliance or convince anyone else that Tokyo is again on the march. But China may come to rue harping incessantly on Japanese misconduct during World War II and the echoes of history today. Doing so prompts observers to ask who’s acting like a militarist. And it raises the question while handing them a measuring stick to answer it. Thou doth protest too much.…

Think about it. Liberal Japan has maintained an inoffensive profile for decades while spending a trifling sum on its military. China, by contrast, boosts its defense budget by double digits nearly every year, spending part of that figure on aircraft carriers that aren’t in disguise. It preys on its neighbors’ maritime territory. It wants to carve out a zone of exceptionalism in East Asia where the Chinese Communist Party makes the rules. It proclaims that might makes right within that zone.

Remind you of anyone?

TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images

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