JASDF records decade-low scrambles amidst tensions with China/Russia

Recently, Japan’s Defense Ministry disclosed a significant dip in the frequency of scrambles conducted by its Air Self-Defense Force fighter jets in the fiscal year 2023—marking it as the least active year in a decade. The report, published on April 19th, revealed that the Japanese jets took to the skies in response to perceived threats 669 times in the fiscal year 2023, which ended in March. To put that into context, this is a decrease of 109 incidents compared to the previous fiscal year, making it the lowest annual tally since 2013. 

Chinese J-11 flies 10ft from USAF jet, then cuts in front of it
Photo credit: Wikipedia

However, despite this declining trend, the frequency of intercepting foreign military aircraft remains quite high. This observation was articulated by Japan’s Joint Staff in their statement accompanying the data announcement. According to the shared data, there was a single reported instance of a Russian aircraft breaching Japan’s airspace. However, no further context or details have been provided regarding this occurrence. 

At the beginning of the decade

Japan, UK, and Italy to produce next-gen fighter replacing aging F2
Photo credit: JASDF

The figures illustrate a persistent level of high scramble activity since the start of the fiscal year 2013. Japan has been conducting upwards of 700 scrambles each year in response to foreign military aircraft near its territorial airspace, as the statement explains. Chinese aircraft were identified as the main instigator, with Japanese pilots launching 479 scrambles in response to Chinese aircraft intrusions last fiscal year. This count represents a drop from the previous annual record of 575 scrambles. 

Moreover, there was a decline in scrambles against Russian airplanes. The fiscal year 2023 saw only 174 scramble incidents involving Russian aircraft, marking the lowest in ten years. This represents a decrease from 150 scrambles during the preceding year. 

The Defense Ministry highlighted certain notable occurrences. In June, Chinese aircraft navigated the gap between Japan’s Miyako and Okinawa islands. The same year, in June and December, joint patrols conducted by Chinese and Russian bombers were observed over the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan. In a first-time occurrence, a Chinese drone flew between Japan’s Yonaguni Island and Taiwan in August, crossing the Sea of Japan. 

Japanese F-35's device avoids the engine resonant vibrations
Photo credit: Getty Images

Addressing these incidents, Defense Minister Minoru Kihara spoke at a news briefing, “The Self-Defense Forces, in collaboration with the Ministry of Defense, will consistently remain vigilant and observe strict vigilance to take stringent measures against any breaches of our airspace.” 

Japan’s concerns persist

Taiwanese aircraft and North Korean aircraft accounted for one and two out of the remaining 16 scrambles respectively, according to the 3rd quarter scramble records. The details for the remaining 13 scrambles were not disclosed. Japan’s concerns persist, even as scrambling incidents involving Chinese and Russian aircraft have declined. Tokyo remains wary of the increasing military collaboration between Beijing and Moscow. Despite fewer scrambles, Japan maintains its high vigilance, with a particular focus on the evolving dynamics of Sino-Russian relations and their joint military activities near its national boundaries. 

Worries in Japan! The Kremlin sent two 'Bear' bombers near Tokyo - Tu-95MS bombers
Photo by Sergei Fedichev

Recently, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshimasa Hayashi, affirmed the nation’s commitment to this scrutiny during a press briefing. His comments highlight the growing discomfort within Tokyo about the possible implications of the strengthening military liaison between its two neighboring powers. 

This worry was reflected in the 2024 Diplomatic Bluebook published by the Japanese Foreign Ministry, pointing to the increased occurrence of joint operations such as maritime passages and combined patrols featuring assault planes, undertaken by Moscow and Beijing in proximity to Japanese waters. 

The report observed, “The military domain has seen an upswing in Russia’s collaboration with China, as evidenced by the joint naval movements of Chinese and Russian vessels [from July to August] and cooperative patrol operations using attack aircraft [in June and December].” However, while the decline in scramble events during the fiscal year of 2023 might seem like a sign of reduced tension, it’s unwise to interpret it as a decrease in regional instability. 

Tu-142 anti-submarine warfare aircraft detected enemy submarines
Photo by Fedor Leukhin

Specific operational aspects

Dzirhan Mahadzir, a defense analyst and journalist working out of Malaysia, cautioned against such an assumption, proposing that the drop could potentially be due to specific operational aspects. He explained, “The fewer scramble occurrences this year probably stem from the two deployments by PLAN’s [People’s Liberation Army Navy] Liaoning Carrier Strike Group [CSG] in May and December of 2022. These operations, which took place near Japan’s southwestern islands, triggered multiple scrambles.” 

On the other hand, FY 2023 saw Shandong CSG conduct three deployments to the Western Pacific, of which only one occurred near Japan, causing sufficient disruptions to incite scrambles by the JASDF,” he further clarified. Meanwhile, it’s been noted that Russian aircraft have decreased their activity around Japan in recent times. This is reportedly due to the need to divert resources and attention towards the conflict in Ukraine. Experts indicate that Russia’s military involvement in the ongoing war has overstretched its capacity to exert power in the Indo-Pacific region.

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