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Japanese Defend Their Air Space
by James Dunnigan
December 26, 2013

Japanese complaints about growing incidents of Russian warplanes flying close to Japanese air space have left Russian officials perplexed. The Russian aircraft are flying more training missions in the Pacific and there is a lot of Japanese airspace off the east coast of Eurasia, so Russian warplanes out there cannot avoid passing close to Japanese air defense radars. In the last six months Japanese fighters have been sent aloft an average of once a day to check out approaching Russian warplanes. But on two days Russian aircraft were detected briefly entering Japanese air space. Earlier this year two Su-27s did so and in August two Tu-95s did the same. These two incidents were the first time since 2008 that Russian aircraft actually entered Japanese air space. Japanese officials are alarmed.

Russia treats Japanese complaints respectfully and explains the difficulty its long-range aircraft have avoiding Japanese air space as they head for and return from the Pacific. Fighters also have little in the way of international air space between Russia and Japan. At the same time Russia has been negotiating closer military and diplomatic cooperation with Japan for dealing with North Korea, which both countries see as a potential threat. While Russian “probes” (according to the Japanese) of Japanese air space are up, Russia is making an effort to explain and justify themselves.

Meanwhile, the Japanese Air Force is having far more trouble dealing with a growing number of Chinese aircraft snooping around. In the last year Japanese aircraft have gone up over 300 times to confront Chinese aircraft coming too close to Japanese air space. This was the first time Chinese intrusions exceeded Russian ones. In 2011, nearly 43 percent of the time the sorties were for Chinese aircraft. That's almost three times as many Chinese intrusions as in 2010. Meanwhile, Russian intrusions have been declining. In 2011, Russia still accounted for 52 percent of the intrusions, and in the last year Chinese intrusions were 23 percent more frequent than the Russian ones.

The Japanese believe that one cause for this shift is more electronic and maritime patrol aircraft available to the Chinese and a desire to gather as much information as possible about the strongest potential foe in the area. But the main reason is the dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands near Okinawa. China and Japan both claim these uninhabited islets, which are 320 kilometers southeast of the Chinese mainland, 167 kilometers northeast of Taiwan, and 426 kilometers southwest of Japan's Okinawa and have a total area of 6.3 square kilometers. Taiwan also claims the Senkakus, which were discovered by Chinese fishermen in the 16th century and taken over by Japan in 1879. They are valuable now because of the 380 kilometer economic zone nations can claim in their coastal waters. This includes fishing and possible underwater oil and gas fields.

In 2011, the 355 Japanese anti-intrusion sorties were up 17 percent over the previous year, while in 2010, sorties were up 29 percent. Now they are up again. All this should be measured against Cold War activity, which peaked in 1984 at 944 interception sorties. After the Cold War ended in 1991 (when there were 488 sorties), the number of intrusions fell through the 1990s, but in the last decade the number has increased.

These intrusions have been increasing sharply over the last five years. Early on the Japanese launched many aircraft for each intrusion. For example, in 2008, a Russian Tu-95 entered Japanese airspace, near an uninhabited island about 600 kilometers south of Tokyo. Although the Russian aircraft was in Japanese airspace for only about three minutes the Japanese launched 22 aircraft to intercept. This force included two AWACs aircraft and twenty fighters. No Russian aircraft entered Japanese airspace without permission again until 2013, and the Russians apologized for that. But as the intrusions increased, the number of interceptors sent out for each incident decreased.

 


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