Japan’s Aging Air Defenses
Constant ‘scramble’ against intruding Chinese fighter jets
By: Todd Crowell
On any given day, four Japanese jet fighters from some airbase will “scramble,” that is take off in a hurry to check out a suspicious intruder entering the country’s air defense zone. The number of scrambles has been rising rapidly as relations with China are strained because of territorial disputes in the East China Sea.
According to the latest Defense White Paper, Japan flew more than 900 sorties in 2019 investigating intruders. A majority of the scrambles were for Chinese aircraft, the remainder mostly Russian. It is only in recent years that the number of Chinese intruders has exceeded those of Russia.
Japan’s fleet of 215 F-15 Eagles does most of the heavy lifting. They are ideal for such missions as they have speed, range and endurance, and they can reach the intruder quickly. But they are wearing out. In October last year, the US State Department approved Japan’s request for an upgrade package for almost 100 of the F-15s at an estimated cost of $4.5 billion for advanced electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, new mission computers, and electronic warfare equipment, as well as the integration of new munitions.
Since 2016, the Japanese air force has been sending up four F-15s in each scramble. The additional fighters provide the lead aircraft with instant backup should there be an ambush, but it adds to the wear and tear on both pilots and aircraft.
The defense ministry recently announced that the Japanese air force will now scramble fighters immediately anytime a Chinese aircraft is detected taking off at nearby Chinese airbase. It also said that Japanese fighters now routinely fly daily patrols over the East China Sea from sunup to sunrise regardless whether an intruder is detected.
In terms of flying hours, the Chinese fighters are about 25 minutes from The Shuiman airbase in Zhejiang Province near to the disputed Senkaku rocks, compared with about 20 minutes for the Japanese, which means that they scarcely have time to get from their Naha base to meet the Chinese at the edge of the defensive zone.
“The stress of constantly responding to the Chinese air activities has added pressure to an already overstretched Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (air force),” according to a recent study by the Rand Corporation, a think tank close to the US Air Force.
It could be argued that such scrambles are the main mission of Japan’s peacetime air force today to the detriment of other missions, such as training for air-to-air combat, air-ground support and, crucially, maintaining air superiority over the East China Sea.
Up to now, no Chinese warplane has ever directly overflown any of the disputed Senkaku islands, but Beijing’s maritime assets, such as the Coast Guard, have no such qualms. Indeed, the Chinese seem to be getting more aggressive in asserting claims to the islands.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga last week devoted a portion of his daily press briefing to a complaint that China is upping its campaign. Chinese ships were spotted in Senkaku waters for 100 days running, the longest streak since Tokyo nationalized the islands in 2013.
Virtually every type of Chinese military aircraft besides transports has flown near Japan. These include H6-D long-range bombers, Su-30 fighters plus an array of auxiliary planes such as aerial refuelers, electric countermeasures aircraft and, more recently, intelligence gathering flights.
China has about five times the number of fighter aircraft that can reach Japan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), should Beijing decide to deploy them. That is more than Japan has in its whole air force. What would happen to Japan’s overstretched air force if Beijing were to order a surge in air intrusions?
It could be argued that the Chinese are waging a kind of war of attrition against Japan, since each scramble increases the wear and tear on planes and pilots. It is a war where Beijing can dictate the pace simply by increasing the number of scrambles.
Clearly, Japan needs to acquire more and newer fighters simply to replace aging aircraft. But with which ones? Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pinning everything on the new F-35, just now becoming operational in the US Air Force and the air forces of other countries. Japan has already contracted for 42 F-35As and is taking deliveries. The F-35A is the air force version of the aircraft.
There are reports that Tokyo is thinking of adding about 60 additional F-35s while also buying 40 F-35Bs for the navy. The latter is the vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) version, which would presumably be stationed on the Izumo class helicopter carriers after extensive remodeling to turn them into mini aircraft carriers.
But is the F-35 the right fighter for Japan considering that the air force’s main mission these days is scrambles? Does it really need a fifth-generation stealth fighter known to require extensive maintenance just to police Japan’s defense zone? Conceivably another foreign-made aircraft – Sweden’s Given for example – might be better suited for the job.
But Abe is in a box. He knows that the way to President Donald Trump’s heart is weapons purchases, and the surest way to anger him and jeopardize the alliance would be to buy aircraft from another country.
To save on wear and tear, the Rand study suggests it might decide that Japan need not respond to every Russian intrusion, whose flights seem to be related more to US-Alliance issues rather than territorial ones. Giving the Russians a pass might cut the number of scrambles by about a third, the Rand study suggests.
Japan and Russia have territorial disputes in what Japan calls the Northern Territory and the Russians the southern Kurils. But at least the two sides are talking about it, unlike the standoff between China and Japan over the Senkaku.
Todd Crowell is the author of “The Coming War between China and Japan,” published by Amazon single kindle.
Starting August 2020, Asia Sentinel will publish most stories behind a paywall. Supporting us with subscriptions will help us continue holding governments to account, investigating, and providing the most thoughtful coverage of Asia. See what you’ll get when you subscribe.