Yesterday, Chinese and Japanese military aircraft played “chicken” in the air over the disputed Senkaku Islands. Chinese fighters attempted to challenge the presence of Japanese electronic intelligence collection aircraft patrolling in international airspace. The Japanese Air Self-Defense Forces responded by sending its own fighters into the area. It was reported that Chinese fighters came within a few dozen feet of the Japanese aircraft. This was but the latest in a growing aerial confrontation between the two countries, one that saw Japanese fighters scrambled a record number of times (415) last year to intercept Chinese aerial penetrations of Japanese airspace.
This is a tactic the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force has used repeatedly, seeking both to assert Beijing’s control over nearby airspace and seas and also to deny other countries the ability to collect vital intelligence on military activities on the mainland. The most notable example of the use of this tactic was the collision of a Chinese fighter with a U.S. EP-3 Orion reconnaissance aircraft near Hainan Island in 2001. The Chinese government sought to use this incident to force the U.S. to scale back its maritime patrols near the mainland.
The airspace between Japan, China, Taiwan, the Koreas and Russia is becoming increasingly contested and dangerous. Russia too has substantially increased its combat air patrols in the airspace between its far eastern territories and Japan, including the conduct of mock bomber strikes. Even North Korea is playing this dangerous game. Last year, Japanese and South Korean jets scrambled at least a dozen times to intercept North Korean fighters operating in a threatening manner.
In addition to all the regional parties, the U.S. also continually operates military aircraft in the area. Last year, Washington sent two B-52s through China’s unilaterally declared air defense identification zone in the East China Sea as a visible sign of its rejection of Beijing’s action. U.S. combat aircraft are stationed in South Korea, Japan, Okinawa and Guam and routinely conduct training activities. U.S. aerial intelligence collection platforms, both manned and unmanned, have operated in the area for decades. Whenever Russia, China or North Korea conduct ballistic missile tests in the region, the U.S. deploys airborne and sea-based intelligence collection systems.
The U.S. is deploying its most modern aircraft and ships to the region as part of its Asia-Pacific pivot including the F-22 fighter, Aegis missile defense-capable destroyers, Los Angeles-class attack submarines and nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. In addition, our regional allies also are modernizing their air and sea capabilities. Australia just announced a large buy of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. Japan and South Korea are both in the midst of modernizing their fighter fleets and appear almost certain to acquire the F-35 too.
In light of the increasingly crowded skies over the Western Pacific and the complex political and military environment, U.S. allies would be particularly well advised also to enhance their command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) capabilities and to establish mechanisms and networks to share situation data amongst themselves. As the U.S. military has demonstrated in numerous conflicts since the end of the Cold War, C3I superiority can be the decisive factor in high-end conventional conflicts. Equally important, the ability to collect and share information across services and amongst coalition partners will be vital to managing the complex security environment in the Asia-Pacific region in situations short of war.
Today, only a few regional allies possess anything beyond a basic C3I capability. Japan has the greatest capability with a combination of aging YS-11 and EP-3 Orion electronic intelligence collectors, E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft, land-based radar and Aegis-capable destroyers. Korea relies largely on land-based C3I systems. Australia, with its need to see and act at long-distances from land, has developed impressive airborne ISR and electronic warfare capabilities. All three of these countries will need improved communications networks to exploit the inherent sensor capabilities of the F-35 when it arrives.
U.S regional allies, particularly those in Northwest Asia, would benefit from an ability to share situational information amongst themselves and with the U.S. It is just as important to know where your friends are as it is to be able to track hostile aircraft. Currently, this is a capability that resides largely with U.S. forces in the region. Investments in sensors and, even more important, collaborative networks could prove a decisive asymmetric advantage in any future high-end conventional conflict.
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