Is Any Ship Not An Aircraft Carrier Anymore?

(THE DIPLOMAT 15 AUG 13) … Robert Farley

There are times at which the launch of a medium-sized, helicopter carrying sea control ship would not roil the Pacific Rim. Last week was not one of those times.

Izumo is a classic sea control ship, designed to provide rump aviation capacity to a task force and to enhance anti-submarine capability. It should also prove an effective platform for disaster relief operations, especially given the expectation that it will operate the V-22 Osprey.

The need for Izumo is driven by the increasing size and reach of the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF), which taxes the fleet’s indigenous aviation capacity.

In general, regional concern about Japan’s naval aviation program focuses on offensive capability, and Izumo’s utility as an offensive platform depends on its ability to operate the F-35B. Early indications suggest that the ships structural features will limit this capacity, even assuming that Japan decides to acquire the vertical and/or short take-off and landing (VSTOL) variant of the Joint Strike Fighter. For example, the elevators on Izumo are not particularly well-suited to operating the F-35, especially at any kind of high intensity.

Izumo’s launch was hardly the only naval aviation news to emerge over the past week. Photographic evidence seems to indicate that China is well on its way to a second, indigenous carrier, this one sporting full catapults. India has launched its indigenous carrier, although Vikrant will not apparently enter service until 2018 at the earliest. Altogether, the naval aviation seascape of Asia is growing crowded, especially amid expectations that Russia will deploy one or two of its new Mistral class amphibious assault ships to the Pacific.

More broadly, the reaction to the launch of Izumo reinforces my belief that we need a better naval vocabulary. Although the term “helicopter destroyer” is a bit of a joke, it’s not really any more funny that referring to the USS America and the USS Tripoli as “amphibious assault ships” rather than “light aircraft carriers.” As long as we continue to refer to 22,000-ton helicopter carriers, 45,000-ton STOBAR carrier, and 95,000 ton CATOBAR carriers by the same term, people will continue to panic about mild improvements in the JMSDF’s helicopter projection capability.

This fact is relentlessly reinforced whenever anyone mentions that the United States operates 10 aircraft carriers. By the terms that Americans judge other nations’ warships, the U.S. Navy operates 19 aircraft carriers. It would surely be better to adopt a more accurate nomenclature that distinguished between fleet carriers (CVs), light carriers (CVLs), and Sea Control Ships (CVEs).

However, the past week’s events reinforce my impression that one of the primary missions of aircraft carriers is to convey symbolic power and national prestige. In this sense, the Chinese reaction to Izumo is unproductive, as Beijing’s excessive concern led others to inflate their own perceptions of Izumo’s capabilities, and consequently increase the symbolic importance of the ship to the JMSDF’s domestic constituency.

The best thing to do with a foreign “flat decked aircraft carrying ship” is, perhaps, to studiously ignore it in public, while preparing to sink it in private.

Robert Farley is an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.

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