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How Did Japan Lose Its Air Superiority Advantage?

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How Did Japan Lose Its Air Superiority Advantage?

Once one of the world’s most capable air forces, Japan now finds itself outmatched in air-to-air combat capabilities.

How Did Japan Lose Its Air Superiority Advantage?

Koku-Jieitai pilots race to two Mitsubishi F-15J Eagles during a scramble demonstration as part of a 10-day U.S.-Japan Bilateral Career Training at Chitose Air Base, Japan, April 14, 2017.

Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Benjamin W. Stratton

Japan received its first F-15J fighters in 1980, and alongside Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia was one of only four countries permitted by the United States to purchase its advanced fourth generation air superiority fighter at the time. The F-15 far surpassed the capabilities of all those fielded by Japan’s neighbors, with the exception of the Soviet Union’s MiG-31 interceptors and, from 1985, its Su-27 fighters as well.

With 200 F-15 fighters in service among its other potent assets, Japan became the world’s third most capable air force and held this title throughout the 1980s — with only the United States and the USSR fielding similarly capable platforms in comparable numbers. With the United States and USSR maintaining an effective monopoly on the production of fourth generation air superiority fighters, and the former restricting their export where the latter banned them entirely, very few countries possessed such high end capabilities.

As a result of Japan’s alliance with the United States, the USSR had long been considered the East Asian state’s primary potential adversary, as Japan was almost certainly set to be involved in any open conflict between the two superpowers due to the extensive U.S. military presence on its territory. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1991 however was somewhat counterintuitively key to undermining the Japanese advantage in the air and causing a severe deterioration in its security capabilities.

With the USSR’s fragmentation and the economies of its successor states in disaster, some of the world’s most modern and capable weapons systems including combat aircraft were made widely available for export as restrictions were removed. China was notably a prime beneficiary of this, and having struggled to develop even a basic third generation interceptor in the 1980s it could by the end of the 1990s count some of the most advanced fourth generation fighters in the world among its air fleet. The country acquired 150 Su-27 and Su-30 Flanker air superiority fighters — the latter which significantly eclipsed the capabilities of the U.S. F-15C and Japanese F-15J. Based on these designs China went on to produce over 300 J-11 fighters, platforms almost identical to the fighters it obtained from Russia, the first batches of which were in fact licence built Su-27 fighters. The F-15J finally had a match in the skies, and Japan within a decade found itself at a disadvantage both technologically and numerically.

Today there is little doubt that China’s most advanced platforms, the Russian-made Su-35 “4++” generation fighter and the indigenous J-20 fifth generation fighter first introduced in 2014 and 2017 respectively, far surpass the F-15J, developed in the 1970s. However, the mainstay of the Chinese air force’s air superiority capabilities remains the J-11, and whether this platform or the Japanese F-15 would have an advantage in air to air combat remains a point of contention. 

With both air forces devoting substantial and roughly equivalent resources to training, and neither having any recent combat experience (China’s brief wars with India and Vietnam in 1962 and 1979 respectively did not involve any air units) it is unlikely that either would have an advantage over the other in the quality of their pilots. China’s ability to draw on some limited combat experience operating jet fighters during the Korean War against the United States Air Force remains an asset Japan lacks, however, with the Tokyo having never conducted an air campaign since the beginning of the jet age. The outcome of a conflict will, as a result, most likely be decided by technological factors rather than the quality of the pilots involved.

One indication of which aircraft would retain an advantage in air-to-air combat were war games held in India in 2004 where Indian Su-30 fighters confronted what was then the U.S. Air Force’s most advanced platform — the F-15C Eagle. The results were a 9 to 1 kill ratio in favor of the Indian-operated Russian-made Sukhoi fighters. This bodes ill for the Japanese Air Force considering both the J-11’s near identical capabilities to the Su-30 and its own heavy reliance on the F-15 for air superiority. 

In beyond visual range combat the J-11 can deploy R-27 and R-77 air-to-air missiles to strike Japanese fighters at distances of 130 km and 110 km respectively, as well as the domestically produced PL-12 with a range of 100 km. On the other hand, the longest ranged air-to-air missile the F-15J can deploy is the AIM-120B with a range of just 75 km. While the United States has developed more sophisticated long range missile platforms such as the AIM-120C, these were developed primarily for its cutting edge fighters such as the F-22 Raptor and cannot be operated by the F-15J. China and Russia on the other hand have developed modern missiles to be compatible with both modern and older fighter variants, giving Chinese fighters operating these missiles a significant advantage over their Japanese counterparts. With both the J-11 and F-15J roughly comparable in their other long range capabilities including their radars, longer ranged and more modern missiles are likely to be a deciding factor in the J-11’s favor.

In visual range combat however the two air superiority platforms show a more significant discrepancy in their performances. The J-11 maintains a higher climb rate, a superior thrust to weight ratio and can attack at higher angles. It is also extremely maneuverable and can endure G-forces the Eagle cannot hope to match. This enhanced maneuverability is perhaps epitomized by the Pugachev Cobra, the signature maneuver of the Su-27 and its more advanced variants including the J-11. Effectively, the only advantages the older F-15J maintain are its slightly higher speed, Mach 2.6 rather than Mach 2.35, its higher service ceiling of 20,000 rather than 19,000 meters, and the greater number of rounds stored on its cannon — none of which are likely to have a decisive impact on the outcome of an engagement with the J-11

The F-15J ultimately has its origins in the mid 1960s with the F-111 program, with the F-15’s airframe having been a rejected proposal for the United States’ next generation platform that was later adopted. The F-15 was developed at a time when the most advanced fighter in Soviet service was the MiG-25 interceptor, and while modernized it remains a far older concept than the Su-27. The J-11 by contrast is based on a platform inducted into service in the mid-1980s, the Su-27, designed specifically to counter and defeat the F-15 based on observations of the Eagle’s capabilities — a role which the USSR was confident it could fulfil. It is therefore little surprise that China’s most numerous air superiority fighter retains a significant advantage over the most capable platform in Japanese service.

China for its part is set to see its advantage continue to grow with the induction of several new assets including greater numbers of J-20 fifth generation air superiority fighters, commissioning in the near future of ramjet powered PL-15 air to air missiles with a range over 300 km, and the J-11D – a “4++” generation platform using improved variants of the WS-10 engine, radar absorbent coatings, an active electronically scanned array radar and infrared search-and-track systems. With the United States having produced no more capable air superiority platforms than the F-15 for export, Japan has no way of acquiring heavy platforms capable of competing with even the most basic J-11 variants, much less newer and more capable platforms China fields.

This is a direct result not only of China’s rapid progress in modernizing its aerial warfare capabilities, but also of the United States’ unwillingness to supply its allies with modern air superiority fighters, either the fifth generation F-22 or a “4++” generation fighter analogous to the Su-35. Japan’s more recent acquisitions of light multirole fighters, the fourth generation F-2 and fifth generation F-35, hardly alleviate its difficulties considering that neither was designed or is suitable for an air superiority role. 

Indeed, the Washington-based defence think tank Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments warned specifically in a report in 2009 about the potentially dire consequences for Japan as a result of the United States’ unwillingness to supply it with the F-22 Raptor, which it sorely needed to regain its technological advantage over neighboring China. Japan, as a result, is forced to either rely heavily on the U.S. military presence on its territory to compensate for its own disadvantage — or else invest in the development of its own air superiority fighter which could well be the only means to regain some for of parity with its fast modernizing neighbor.

Abraham Ait is a military analyst specializing in Asia-Pacific security and the role of air power in modern warfare. He is chief editor of Military Watch Magazine.