Here Comes China’s Drone Patrols

Mike Yeo reveals how heavier bombers and drones are becoming the new normal over the waters of the Western Pacific

Here Comes China’s Drone Patrols Here Comes China’s Drone Patrols

Uncategorized September 11, 2013 0

unidentified chinese drone. Japan ministry of defense photo Here Comes China’s Drone Patrols Mike Yeo reveals how heavier bombers and drones are becoming the... Here Comes China’s Drone Patrols
unidentified chinese drone. Japan ministry of defense photo

Here Comes China’s Drone Patrols

Mike Yeo reveals how heavier bombers and drones are becoming the new normal over the waters of the Western Pacific

On most days, the Japan Self-Defense Forces scramble fighters to intercept Chinese military aircraft patrolling through what Tokyo terms its Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ. But it’s not everyday Japanese aircraft intercept a Chinese drone.

That’s exactly what happened this week.

On Monday, Japan detected an unidentified drone flying southeast off the coast of Zhejiang, before circling the skies approximately 100 miles north of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and then heading back in the direction of China. An unknown number of JASDF interceptors were scrambled against the interloper.

It’s the first known occasion when a land-based Chinese drone has approached the Japanese ADIZ. From the photo of the drone released by the Japanese Ministry of Defense, it would appear to be a BZK-005 medium-altitude, long-endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or UAV.

This was the flight profile:

Drone flight profile. Japan Ministry of Defense illustration

Little is known about this obscure UAV since its unveiling in 2006, except that it was designed by the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics with Harbin Aircraft Industry Group is believed to boast an endurance of 40 hours with a service ceiling of 26,000 feet. The type is known to be in service with the Chinese Navy, deployed with an unknown reconnaissance unit stationed in the nearby base of Huangyan-Luqiao.

Scrambling fighters against Chinese aircraft more generally is not out of the ordinary. The JASDF scrambled fighters against Chinese aircraft at least 306 times in 2012, which works out to almost once daily.

What is different in the latest interceptions is the type of aircraft and their flight profile. A day before the drone popped up in the skies of the Western Pacific, the JASDF scrambled fighters against a pair Chinese Navy Xi’an H-6 bombers.

H-6 bomber. Japan Ministry of Defense photo

The bombers flew through international airspace over the Miyako Strait south of the Japanese island of Okinawa, headed out into the Pacific and then turned back towards China the same way they came.

The H-6 is a Chinese-built version of the Russian Tupolev Tu-16 Badger bomber, but modernized and updated — and is used as a missile carrier that packs anti-ship cruise missiles. Alternatively, the H-6 can carry electronic countermeasure pods in the electronic warfare role. The serial number on the photographed H-6 indicates that it belongs to the Chinese Navy’s 17th Air Regiment, East Sea Fleet based at Jiangsu-Benniu, west of Shanghai.

The Japanese defense ministry has not identified its own interceptor aircraft involved in both events. However, they were almost certainly Mitsubishi-built F-15 Eagles from the JASDF’s 204th Hikotai, based at Naha on Okinawa. The unit’s fighters have been at the forefront of confronting Chinese aircraft flying in Japan’s ADIZ.

The flight profile by the Chinese bombers is also unusual and had hitherto been unknown. These latest overflights also took place in the days immediately before the anniversary of the Japanese government’s nationalization of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in 2012, causing the simmering dispute over who owns the islands to flare up in a big way since.

However, the Chinese Defense Ministry said the overflight was a “routine task” and “not aimed at any country,” and reiterated — correctly — that China enjoys freedom of overflight in relevant waters.

Perhaps more notable: Beijing’s stated position is that the Chinese military will organize similar activities to the Western Pacific in the future.

There you have it, ladies and gentlemen: The new normal.