On August 25 of this year, the Japanese Marine Self Defence Force launched the Hyuga, a helicopter-carrying destroyer. With a large flight deck, and an island control centre, the vessel resembles a small carrier and has grabbed the attention of military observers around the world. Its name has resonance as well: the Hyuga was originally a battleship that was laid down in 1918, but was then converted into a light carrier during the Second World War.
The Hyuga is the culmination of several different strands of Japanese military thinking. Clearly designed as a sub-killer, the Hyuga has the capacity to carry 11 helicopters. It is likely to be outfitted with the Blackhawk-like SH-60J's and at least one MCH-101 all-purpose Super Stalion. In addition it has 6 torpedo tubes, capable of launching anti-submarine munitions. In addition to its anti-submarine capabilities, it has a strong defensive screen from attacking aircraft or missiles: this includes its Aegis-type air defence system, with the US-developed AN/SPY-1 multi-function radar, her principles weapons systems is 64 advanced ESSM-type Sparrow missiles. She also sports two Phalanx 'Gatling' guns for in-close missile defence.
So now for the most important question: can the Hyuga support fixed-wing aircraft? In its present state, it is unable to support aircraft, though a refit of its flight deck to support a taking-off ramp could change that. If the flight deck was also coated with special urethane, it could support vertical take-off planes like the Harrier and F-35B. More to the point, however, is that at 13,500 tonnes, the Hyuga is the largest vessel in the JMSDF. What is more, most destroyers only measure in at 10,000 tonnes. Some have argued that Japan has been ambiguous before about the specifications of its war vessels: the 'light-cruisers' of the Mogami-class during the 1930's. As they displaced 15,000 tonnes and carried 10 eight-inch guns, they were in fact heavy cruisers.
The real question is whether the Hyuga presents a form of force-projection or not. Looking carefully at its specifications and its profile, it is clear that it comes close to force projection, but still walks on the side of self-defence. Japan has reason to want to develop a sub-killer. Chinese and North Korean submarines have been caught several times passing through Japanese waters submerged, in contravention of the International Law of the Sea. In practice, the Hyuga presents force defence capability over Japanese islands and maritime resources. It also gives Japan the ability to respond to future humanitarian disasters in the same way that the US was able to with the USS Abraham Lincoln following the 2005 Tsunami. That operation showed how hard power platforms could be used to soft power ends.
And what of the region? Japan is not the only power in the region working toward building an aircraft carrier. South Korea and China are also in the game. South Korea has developed the Kokdo LPX (Landing Platform eXperimental) which has the ability to launch vertical take-off aircraft. Displacing 14,340 tonnes, it is heavier than the Hyuga. China is also vying to operate its own aircraft carrier. A Hong Kong consortium purchased the Ukranian carrier, the Varyag, to be brought to China and made into a theme park. Upon arriving in Dalian Port, it was promptly turned over to the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which has been restoring it ever since.
So is the aircraft carrier the new battleship? Is it becoming the naval weapon of choice for establishing national prestige? Or is the arms race in the Pacific simply taking a new turn?