Sources within the Japanese government revealed plans on Monday to send the Izumo helicopter carrier, the nation’s largest warship, on a three-month tour of the South China Sea.
This will surely be taken as a provocative display of force by China, which claims almost all of the South China Sea as its territory, despite international court rulings to the contrary.
Reuters reports that the Izumo will make port calls in Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka, then it will participate in a joint exercise with U.S. and Indian ships in the Indian Ocean. The deployment will last through June, July, and August.
A source within the Japanese government told Reuters that the Izumo would also train with U.S. ships in the South China Sea.
The Izumo is technically designated a “helicopter carrier” or “helicopter destroyer” specializing in anti-submarine warfare, but it is nearly the size of a World War II aircraft carrier, and of course, it boasts far more sophisticated sensors and defenses than its WW2 predecessors. In fact, it specializes in precisely the sort of amphibious assault missions that would be necessary for a campaign to retake occupied islands from an aggressor nation. NBC News points out the ship is officially classified as a “destroyer” because Japan’s constitution currently forbids the acquisition of offensive weapons, such as assault carriers.
A review of the Izumo published by the Center for International Maritime Security last April argues that it could be modified to launch jet fighters with short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) capability, such as the new F-35 joint strike fighter to which Japan has access. The F-35 is extremely effective at striking ground targets inside heavily defended airspace, such as the structures China has been building on those contested islands in the South China Sea.
Reuters’ sources described the voyage of the Izumo as Japan’s “biggest show of naval force in the region since World War Two.”
The United States is already patrolling the South China Sea, prompting occasional complaints and provocative behavior from the Chinese. Philippine officials just concluded a tour of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the South China Sea where Rear Admiral James Kilby stressed America’s commitment to preserving freedom of navigation throughout the region. Japan has invited Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte to tour the Izumo when it stops at Subic Bay; he replied he would make the visit “if I have time.”