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New helicopter destroyer officially joins Japanese fleet

The helicopter destroyer JS Kaga at the Japan Maritime Self-Defense base in Yokosuka, Japan, Thursday, March 23, 2017.

TYLER HLAVAC/STARS AND STRIPES

By TYLER HLAVAC | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 23, 2017

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Japan’s newest ship will be positioned for natural-disaster response but can also carry the U.S.-made Osprey and aircraft made for combat contingencies, Japanese officials said Thursday.

The helicopter destroyer JS Kaga officially joined the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force fleet and arrived Wednesday at Yokosuka, where it was moored opposite the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and other U.S. 7th Fleet ships in the city’s wide military harbor.

The 814-foot flat-top ship capable of carrying up to 14 helicopters will be stationed in Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture, and used as a command ship during emergencies.

Kaga’s introduction completes Japan’s plan to strengthen surveillance capability by introducing carrier-like destroyers to all of its four escort flotillas, a JMSDF spokesman said Thursday.

Japan is in the process of building up its sea forces, in part as a counterweight to China’s rapid military expansion.

“For that purpose, it mainly carries anti-submarine helicopters,” said the spokesman on condition of anonymity, which is customary within the service.

Japan is also building a Marine Corps-like amphibious brigade composed of ground forces, again with an eye cast toward Beijing.

China claims the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, between Okinawa and Taiwan. China declared an air-defense identification zone over the islands in 2013, and some of its ships and aircraft have been involved in low-level showdowns with Japanese counterparts in recent years.

The maritime service hopes to conduct joint missions with the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in the future as Japan adds the Osprey hybrid aircraft to its arsenal, the spokesman said.

U.S. Marines practiced landing Ospreys on the helicopter destroyer JS Izumo during an exercise in July.

Japan has rarely engaged in joint operations in the post-WWII era, but is beginning to do so more frequently. In November, Japanese ground and maritime forces boarded a U.S. destroyer and coordinated with Japanese air forces during a combat exercise near Tinian, in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Familiarity with Ospreys could also boost coordination with U.S. forces, which fly the aircraft in both mainland Japan and on Okinawa.

During the response to the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that ravaged east Japan’s coastline, Japanese helicopters landed aboard the Ronald Reagan during relief missions.

Kaga hosts 470 crew members and includes five spots for helicopters to take off and land simultaneously, Japanese officials said Thursday.

The ship packs two 20mm Phalanx Close In Weapons Systems, better known as CIWS guns, and defends itself with anti-missile and anti-torpedo systems.

It is the second of the larger, Izumo-class helicopter destroyers; the Izumo is homeported in Yokosuka.

The two ships closely resemble aircraft carriers but lack arresting wires, ski-jump ramps or other features used to launch fighter jets.

Japanese officials have in the past denied speculation that Kaga and Izumo would be used to support fighter planes. The anti-war clause of Japan’s constitution generally prohibits offensive weapons such as aircraft carriers.

However, defense analysts have suggested the ships could be modified, particularly to accommodate short-takeoff and vertical landing aircraft such as the Harrier or the new F-35B variant.

Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.

hlavac.tyler@stripes.com
 

The crew of the JS Kaga attend the helicopter destroyer's commissioning ceremony in Yokohama, Japan, Wednesday, March 22, 2017.
COURTESY OF JAPAN MARITIME SELF-DEFENSE FORCE

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