Last Thursday, as hundreds of guests watched, a naval vessel with a large flight deck reminiscent of a light aircraft carrier was launched at the IHI Marine United shipyard in Yokohama, Japan.
The 13,500-ton vessel Hyuga, a helicopter-carrying destroyer for the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, made its magnificent presence known to the public for the first time. The name comes from an Imperial Navy warship that saw action in World War II. The original Hyuga was a battleship, but toward the end of the war it was modified into a unique aircraft-carrying battleship that could load some 20 fighters. The new Hyuga-class vessel meanwhile can carry several choppers and is mainly tasked with chasing and destroying enemy submarines.
Despite minimal attention from the Korean press, the launch of the Hyuga is worth noting for several reasons. First, the Hyuga, which is also known as 16DDH, is Japan's largest warship since World War II, and it's the Maritime Self-Defense Force's first warship greater than 10,000-tons. The Hyuga is also equipped with a state-of-the-art radar system, likened to a mini Japanese version of the Aegis system. The radar can cover all directions around the clock just as the Aegis does.
What's most noteworthy about the vessel is the debate over what exactly it is. Japan officially calls it a helicopter-carrying destroyer, claiming it is neither a light aircraft carrier nor a helicopter carrier. But many Korean and foreign media outlets are calling it Japan's first post-war helicopter carrier or light aircraft carrier. Japan plans to operate four to six of the ships, each with a hangar and deck for up to 11 choppers. Four SH-60 anti-submarine helicopters can lift off from the Hyuga flight deck at the same time. It doesn't carry vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, and is not equipped with the special "ski jump" decks needed for fixed-wing jets to take off.
Experts point out that the Hyuga is not a light aircraft carrier for now, but it can still serve as a helicopter carrier. In contrast to Japan's Haruna-class helicopter destroyer, which carries only three choppers, the Hyuga can carry nearly four times as many, greatly improving the Maritime Self-Defense Force's helicopter operation capabilities. The Hyuga is much larger than the 8,900-ton Oosumi-class vessels, a large landing ship that prompted a public outcry that it could be rebuilt into a light aircraft carrier. The Hyuga can also function as a flagship commanding a fleet and as a disaster rescue command station.
Also worth noting is that the launch of the Hyuga has laid the foundation for the Maritime Self-Defense Force to achieve its long-cherished desire to possess an aircraft carrier. Despite Japan's defeat in World War II, the Maritime Self-Defense Force long had a dream of operating an aircraft carrier. During the peak Cold-War years in the 1960s, it wanted to build a 10,000-ton anti-submarine helicopter carrier with a large flight deck. America's military advisory group approved the idea, and Japan pushed to build it with partial funding from the U.S. Seething public opinion and a lack of budget saw the plan scrapped. Haruna and Shirane helicopter-carrying destroyers were built instead, and now as they begin to age the Hyuga has been launched to replace them.
So now Japan's dream of building a helicopter carrier has come true after some 40 years of twists and turns. The Hyuga-class ships are clearly important vessels to pay attention to.
This column was contributed by Yu Yong-weon, the Chosun Ilbo's senior reporter for military affairs.