Flashpoints

Japan Scrambles Fighter Jets 999 Times in 2018 in Response to Foreign Aircraft

981 out of 999 scrambles were conducted against Chinese and Russian military aircraft.

Franz-Stefan Gady
Japan Scrambles Fighter Jets 999 Times in 2018 in Response to Foreign Aircraft
Credit: Japan Ministry of Defense

The Japan Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) scrambled its fighter jets 999 times against foreign military aircraft in fiscal year 2018, according to the Japan Ministry of Defense (MoD).

The number of scrambles was up from 904 in fiscal year 2017 and was the second highest on record. The peak year for JASDF sorties against foreign military aircraft remains 2016 with 1,168 reported sorties. Out of the 1,168 scrambles that year, 851 were Chinese.

Japanese fiscal years end in March.

In 2018, 64 percent of the total, or 638 scrambles were against Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force (PLANAF) aircraft, up from 500 the previous year. The JASDF conducted a total of 343 scrambles, or 34 percent of the total against Russian military planes, down from 390 in 2017.

The JASDF is confronted by a pending shortage of fighter aircraft as the service has doubled the number of fighters dispatched for each intercept of foreign military planes from two to four in 2016. The JASDF uses Mitsubishi F-15J/Kai all-weather air superiority fighters, F-2 multirole fighter jets, a Mitsubishi license-produced variant of Lockheed Martin’s F-16, and F-4EJ/RF-4 Phantom II fighter aircraft to conduct scrambles.

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On April 1, the PLANAF sent two Xian H-6G maritime strike bombers and one Shaanxi Y-9JB (GX-8) electronic warfare and surveillance aircraft through international airspace between the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Miyako in the East China Sea. On March 30, the PLAAF dispatched four Xian H-6K long-range bombers, one Tupolev Tu-154MD electronic intelligence plane, and at least two fighter jets, along the same route.

PLANAF/PLAAF intercepts primarily took place in airspace close Okinawa and in the East China Sea. Chinese aircraft during long-range exercises usually transit the Miyako Strait — a principal entryway for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) into the Pacific Ocean.

Russian military aircraft conduct most of their missions along the eastern rim of the Sea of Japan and north of Hokaido. Russian long-range bombers have also periodically circumvented the main Japanese islands during long-range patrols.

The JASDF last scrambled fighter jets in March to intercept a Russian Navy Ilyushin Il-38N “Dolphin” maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft over the Sea of Japan. In February, Japanese fighters conducted a scramble against four nuclear-capable Russian Tupolev Tu-95MS strategic bombers and four Sukhoi Su-35S (Flanker-E+) multirole fighter jets flying in two separate formations over the east and west coasts of Japan.

Russia’s military activities in East Asia have not been without casualties in 2019.

“A pair of Su-34 fighter-bombers crashed into the Sea of Japan after reportedly colliding with each other off the coast in Russia’s Far East on January 18 (…),” I reported in February. “Additionally, a Russian Air Force Tupolev Tu-22M3 supersonic bomber crashed at Olenegorsk airbase, in Russia’s northwestern region of Murmansk killing three crew members, on January 22.”