Whatever You Do, Don’t Call This Ship an Aircraft Carrier
Inside Japan’s helicopter destroyer ‘Ise’
On July 12, a large warship cruised within sight of Oahu, Hawaii’s most populated island. Sleek and modern-looking with a full-length flight deck, the ship looked like a miniature aircraft carrier.
As we and other reporters watched, U.S. Army and Navy helicopters practiced touch-and-go landings on the vessel’s 646-foot-long top deck, simulating delivering injured disaster victims and picking up supplies.
Helicopter pilots and deck crew communicated only by hand gestures.
But the ship wasn’t American—it was the Japanese. And technically speaking, it wasn’t an aircraft carrier, either. The Japanese navy calls Ise a “helicopter destroyer.”
Ise is the second of two Hyuga-class ships. She can carry up to 11 rotorcraft of various types and sizes, making her very flexible. Ise is capable of a full range of missions, from disaster-relief to intensive naval combat.
But hunting submarines is her main calling. Ise accomplishes this important task by way of her helicopters, and only her helicopters. That’s why she both is—and isn’t—an aircraft carrier.
Yes, helicopters are aircraft. But when most people hear the term “aircraft carrier,” they think of a ship launching and landing fixed-wing planes—something Ise cannot do. She lacks the space and reinforcement.
There’s a lot of history behind Ise’s main mission … and the semantics of her designation.
Enemy submarines were a huge problem for Japan in World War II. Allied subs sank thousands of Japanese freighters, leading to fuel and food shortages. Tokyo is determined never again to let enemy submarines strangle the home islands.
It’s for that reason that the Japanese navy boasts some of the world’s best anti-submarine warships. And the Hyuga-class vessels are the best of the best, thanks to their SH-60K sub-hunting helicopters.
Just don’t call the Hyugas aircraft carriers. Flattops are a touchy subject in Japan.
Having suffered mightily from its wartime militaristic regime, modern Japan by policy limits itself to strictly defensive weaponry. Aircraft carriers inherently are offensive. The government justified building the Hyugas on the grounds that they’re defensive vessels.
For all the qualifiers surrounding them, Ise and her sister Hyuga are hugely impressive ships. They’re 646 feet long and 108 feet wide and displace 18,000 tons of water. They can make a speedy 30 knots, thanks to their four American-designed LM-2500 gas turbine engines. They each carry 345 crew.
They pack 16 vertical silos for Sea Sparrow defensive missiles and anti-submarine rockets. Phalanx auto-guns and torpedo tubes back up the missile launchers.
IHI Marine United in Yokohama laid down Ise in 2008. She entered service in 2011 as part of 4th Escort Squadron sailing from Hiroshima. Ise still has that clean, new-ship look.
We flew out to Ise on a U.S. Navy MH-60S helicopter. As part of the Rim of the Pacific war game, the U.S. and Japan were conducting a joint disaster-relief exercise off the Hawaiian coast. It involved American and Japanese copters ferrying “injured refugees” to Ise, which in turn sent back relief supplies.
Inside, Ise is comfortable and spotless. The exposed pipes, cables, valves, and control panels, all color-coded according to purpose, would be instantly familiar to any sailor. Ladders between decks are similar to—and probably even narrower than—those on U.S. Navy vessels … and with less head clearance, to boot.
The typical American sailor is bigger than his Japanese counterpart. On Ise, a passageway connecting the fore and aft observation decks is narrower than similar passageways on U.S. vessels.
Here and there, we glimpsed the ship’s little quirks. The urinals connect to a valve. You flush by briefly opening then closing the valve. It’s possible the urinals flush with seawater, but nobody wanted to taste the water to find out.
Ise’s coat of arms—a cherry blossom, a red lion, the ship itself and two crossed sabers—is emblazoned on the floor of the wardroom. An unfurled scroll underneath reads “READINESS—EXPERTNESS—INTEGRITY.” Yes, the entire coat of arms is in English, without a word of Japanese. And yes, “expertness” is a real word.
Ise has two aircraft elevators in the center of the flight deck. This is an inexplicable throwback to World War II, when Japanese aircraft carriers had similar central elevators.
If one of them jams at hangar level, you’ve got a problem—a gaping hole in your flight deck. Most modern aircraft carriers position their elevators along the deck’s edges specifically in order to avoid this issue. Ise’s design baffles.
Up on the flight deck, a Japanese SH-60K took off … then returned to pick up a load of supplies. U.S. Army helicopters from the 25th Infantry Division flew in from Wheeler Army Airfield on Oahu. Two OH-58D scout copters descended, following the deck crew’s hand signals.
It all looked perfectly rehearsed—and yet it wasn’t. The Japanese public affairs officer explained that Ise’s air traffic controllers speak English and had no problem communicating with the American fliers. Moreover, the deck crew uses standard NATO hand and arm signals.
A giant CH-47 cargo helicopter followed the OH-58s. An HH-60M medical-evacuation copter was last in line.
Four Chinese warships were present at RIMPAC. But as we watched the helicopters take off and land, the public affairs officer earnestly pointed out that Chinese pilots are not trained to NATO standards—and letting them participate in this part of the exercise would be dangerous to everyone involved.
The end of the Cold War and China’s rise as a military power are forcing Japan to evolve. To some, Hyuga, Ise and the new, even larger Izumo helicopter destroyers are evidence that Japan is remilitarizing.
That’s an unfair assumption, as many peaceful countries also possess helicopters carriers.
But it’s true that Japan is exploring new roles for its Self-Defense Forces. Fearing a Chinese takeover of the Senkaku Islands, Japan has started to train for amphibious warfare—and the Hyugas have a role to play in that kind of operation.
Last year during the Dawn Blitz U.S.-Japanese amphibious war game, Hyuga carried Japanese AH-64 attack helicopters and CH-47s. That still doesn’t make her an aircraft carrier, right?