Japan Scrambles Fighter Jets to Intercept 3 Russian Strategic Bombers

Is Russia stepping up its aerial patrols in the Asia-Pacific region?

Japan Scrambles Fighter Jets to Intercept 3 Russian Strategic Bombers
Credit: Royal Air Force/Wikimedia Commons

Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) fighter jets intercepted three Russian Tu-95 strategic bombers approaching Japan’s airspace on January 24, the Japanese Ministry of Defense (MoD) revealed in a press statement yesterday.

According to the information provided by the MoD, the three Tu-95 bombers flew along the perimeter of Japan’s territorial airspace, circumnavigating the major islands — Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu — of the Japanese archipelago. Japanese airspace was allegedly not violated during yesterday’s bomber patrol by the Russian Aerospace Forces.

The last time JASDF had to scramble fighter jets in response to Russian bomber incursions occurred a year ago, in January 2016, when two Russian Tu-95 bombers circled Japan’s major islands on a similar flight path to yesterday’s patrol. In March 2015, Russian strategic bombers also patrolled the skies in close vicinity to the Ryukyu Islands.

Russia stopped conducting regular bomber patrols in the 1990s and early 2000s, but has increased its patrol activities in the Pacific Ocean following the Ukraine crisis in 2014 amid the resulting isolation from the West. As I reported in October 2016 (See: “Russia to Set up Heavy Bomber Division to Patrol Japan, Hawaii, and Guam”), the Russian Aerospace Forces are in the process of setting up a new long-range heavy bomber division in Russia’s Far East to patrol the Pacific Ocean inside the Japan-Hawaii-Guam triangle.

The new unit will eventually consist of several dozen Tu-95MS strategic missile bombers and Tu-22M3 long-range bombers. “The Tupolev Tu-95MS, an improved variant of the older Tu-95, is a four-engine, long-range, turboprop, strategic bomber that can be armed with a wide range of weapons including stand-off cruise missiles. Russia intends to operate 20 Tu-95MS by the end of 2016,” I explained. The new division is based on the 6953rd Guards’ Red Banner, Pacific Air Group, which conducted patrols within the Japan-Hawaii-Guam triangle during the Cold War.

Japan’s MoD also announced earlier in the month that it recorded an uptick of 36 percent in the number of times the JASDF had to dispatch fighter jets in response to foreign military aircraft approaching the country’s airspace. Between April and December 2016, the JASDF scrambled its warplanes 883 times — 644 times in reaction to People’s Liberation Army Air Force aircraft and 231 times in reaction to the Russian Aerospace Forces. Six incidents involved Republic of China Air Force aircraft.

If upward trends continue, the number of incidents could surpass 1,000 by the end of Japan’s fiscal year 2016 in March 2017. Fiscal year 2015 saw 873 overall sorties, with 288 in reaction to Russian military aircraft. During fiscal year 2014, Japan scrambled fighter jets 943 times, a record 473 of which were in response to the Russian Aerospace Forces.