Japan to Build New Helicopter Carrier

Japan plans to build a 19,500-ton aircraft carrier capable of housing helicopters after China launched its first own aircraft carrier, Chinese media reported on Wednesday. Japan already has two helicopter carriers -- the Hyuga deployed in March 2009 and the Ise deployed in March 2011 -- but the planned new vessel will be bigger.

The 22DDH is scheduled for deployment in 2015. It will be 248 m long and cost around US$1.04 billion. It is 30 percent bigger than the Ise and can carry 14 helicopters. The Ise measures 197 m, has a displacement of 13,500 tons and can carry 11 helicopters.

Although dwarfed by China's aircraft carrier, which is 320 m long and can carry 50 fighter jets, the Japanese vessel will be equipped with the latest U.S. weapons systems to maximize its capability. It will be equipped with the Raytheon air and missile defense system, which has so far only been installed on U.S. vessels, and 11 missile launchers.

Japan had several aircraft carriers during World War II, but since its defeat it has focused on developing helicopter carriers, which are deemed purely defensive. It appears to be bolstering defenses to counter China's increasing submarine warfare capabilities. The new carrier will house mainly helicopters designed for anti-submarine warfare operations.

There are increasing calls within Japan to modify the 22DDH for fighter jets. But critics say it would be unrealistic to build such an aircraft carrier since its navy has only 45,000 personnel, and the already indebted government would run deeper into debt.

Chinese media speculated that Japan could buy Lookheed Martin F-35B stealth fighters capable of vertical takeoff and landing and base them on the new carrier.

Japan is also speeding up the development of stealth fighters and drones. Since 2009, it has invested 39 billion yen (around W562.2 billion) on development of an indigenous stealth fighter codenamed ATD-X. A prototype is expected to be unveiled in 2014, and development is to be complete in 2016.

Japan's Defense Ministry is also spending 15 billion yen this year on developing drones and robots. One unmanned helicopter has already been deployed with the Self-Defense Forces, while four prototype drones have been developed.

englishnews@chosun.com / Sep. 15, 2011 13:57 KST