Japan’s in a Catch-22 Whether to Shoot Down China’s Drones
Responding to Chinese drone patrols runs the risk of escalation
No other nation except for Japan — aside from perhaps Germany — has in its history been so traumatized by the loss of its skies.
Japan was so badly devastated by bombing in World War II, that Tokyo has done everything it can since to ensure control over its sovereign territory and airspace — bending even the constraints of its own constitution, which forbids the maintenance of land, sea and air forces.
But the increasing Chinese flight activity along Japan’s airspace boundaries and the rapid rise of China’s unmanned aerial vehicle capabilities are pushing Japan to go one step further: to consider shooting down the Chinese drones.
Drones pose a new challenge to defending airspace. Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera raised concerns that Chinese drones flying near Japan would be unable to receive visual or radio warnings telling them to buzz off. “Drones, unlike regular airplanes, may not respond to warnings, so they represent a major risk,” he said in September 2013.
If a warning shot doesn’t work, Japan is considering forcing the drones to land or even shooting down the drones — but dealing with a rising power with a lot to prove raises its own problems.
China’s skyward rise
Japan has a long history of playing cat and mouse with fighters and bombers approaching, circumnavigating and even entering Japanese airspace. Traditionally, it was Russia who gave Japan the biggest runaround — receiving the only (warning) shots ever fired in anger by the Air Self-Defense Force.
Last year marked a turning point — while lacking the incredible distance of Russian bomber flights, ASDF scrambles against potential Chinese intrusions overtook those against Russian planes.
China’s air force has a lot going for it. Its air force has been bolstered by new fighter airframes and an array of upgrades to its bomber and surveillance fleet. One of the more impressive areas of Chinese military progress has been in the arena of unmanned aerial vehicles.
At the Paris Air Show in June 2013, the state-owned defense firm Aviation Industry Corporation of China displayed a Predator lookalike — the Wing Loong, or “Pterodactyl” as it’s known to the West. Following the development of many tactical UAVs over the years, this is China’s first strategic-level UCAV — or unmanned combat aerial vehicle. Another video leaked in August showed test flights of the stealthy Sharp Sword UAV, an unmanned fighter.
The pace at which these new systems are being made public is alarming to those who have reason to fear China’s rise. Namely Japan.
Scrambling against China
The majority of the flights that approach Japanese airspace tend to be Chinese fighters on patrol — a show of force taking the fighters up to the limits of China’s own airspace. However, the lack of agreement on borders between Japan and China around the East China Sea poses a special challenge.
Not all of Japanese airspace is universally agreed upon. Like the U.S., Japan has a much broader region it calls its “air defense identification zone,” where entry can trigger Japan scrambling its jets.
Chinese officials tend to make the point that Japan’s ADIZ is much too big. In September 2013, Chinese Rear Adm. Yin Zhuo told the state-owned People’s Daily the zone is “extremely unreasonable.”
Chinese flight paths generally take their aircraft up to the border of Japanese sovereign airspace and then turn away like they are playing a game of chicken against their Japanese counterparts.
Should unidentified aircraft intrude into Japanese airspace and ignore air traffic control orders, the intercepting party of F-15s may be authorized to fire warning shots. Surprisingly, it has yet to come to this in the East China Sea.
In December 2012, a Chinese State Oceanic Administration Y-12 surveillance plane penetrated the airspace above the disputed Senkaku islands — the first time a Chinese aircraft has unlawfully entered internationally-recognized Japanese airspace since records began in 1958.
The dinky little twin-engine turboprop flew an altitude of 300 meters — the international absolute lowest safe altitude — to join four surveillance vessels patrolling Japanese waters around the islands.
The plane arrived at the Senkakus without being spotted by Japanese radar. It wasn’t until a Japanese Coast Guard vessel arrived an hour later that a group of eight F-15Js were scrambled out of Naha.
The Coast Guard ordered the plane to vacate Japanese airspace, but the Y-12 responded, “This is Chinese airspace!” Fortunately for the Y-12, and for regional security, the Chinese plane was gone by the time the F-15s arrived, leaving the ASDF asking how it could stop such an event from happening again.
Each time an F-15 scrambles to meet an approaching Chinese aircraft, Beijing can assess their air defense response times. Y-8J airborne early warning aircraft with Searchwater 2000 radar — such as the one that flew between Miyakojima and Okinawa in July 2012 — allow China to potentially see far enough to identify incoming interceptors out of Okinawa.
China’s intentions are clear: slowly but surely challenge Japanese control of the airspace around the Senkaku islands to allow its aircraft freedom in the East China Sea. China is pushing its luck as far as possible and Japan is worried about where to draw the line.
As Chiaki Akimoto, Tokyo branch director of the Royal United Services Institute, told Bloomberg: “The idea is to escalate little by little. At the same time, they want to see how Japan reacts.” If Japan gives an inch, China will take two.
For its part, Japan’s denies any dispute over the Senkaku islands — admitting there is an alternate claim to the now-state-owned islands would only put them at the top of a slippery slope of territorial claims. However, in doing so they force China’s hand towards escalating their military activities in the East China Sea.
Shooting down drones
The flight by a Chinese BZK-005 UAV approximately 125 miles from the Senkaku islands on Sept. 9, 2013 took the drone within Japan’s ADIZ — two days before the first anniversary of Japan’s nationalization of the islands.
It seems inevitable that Chinese UAVs will eventually engage in the same patrolling and surveillance behavior currently conducted by manned aircraft.
Unmanned drones mean no pilots. No pilots means less cost and higher risk-taking on both sides. For the Chinese, this means that their flights can enter Japanese airspace with no risk of human casualties, allowing them to more effectively push Japan’s buttons. For the Japanese, it reduces the barriers against use of force as no casualties would likely mean less social resistance.
As the Japanese government considers whether they should shoot down any UAVs that might enter their airspace, they must recognize the possibility that doing so could cause the standoff in the East China Sea to turn violent.
Japan is publicly worried that they cannot interact with drones in the same way as they interact with manned aircraft, but they are undoubtedly also worried that these UAVs could carry weapons that present a threat to Japanese civilian and government assets in the region.
At first glance, the decision seems to be a no-brainer. Shoot it down — there would be no human casualties and it would be within Japan’s internationally-recognized rights as the sovereign power. To not shoot down the UAV would be a loss of face against the Chinese and simply encourage bolder attempts to violate Japanese airspace.
However, shooting down a Chinese UAV is not an order to be taken lightly — regardless of how necessary it may seem, turning the current cat and mouse games into a turkey shoot will cause dangerous escalation.
China claims the Senkakus as its own. It has been increasingly vocal about its nautical border disputes, attempting to gain access to resources and sea lanes to feed and protect the rapidly modernizing country.
For China, the loss of a drone will mean little in terms of its wider force posture, but for the ASDF, it would be the organization’s first real shot in anger, a step above the rarely necessary warning shots it is currently granted.
Being the first to shoot will lend credit to those at home and abroad who worry about Japan’s return to military strength. Yet to do nothing would be to lose face among those concerned about China’s designs on Japan. For Beijing, it is a win-win situation.
Japan has no option but to consider how far it can go to defend its borders, and it will have no option but to shoot down unresponsive drones if they violate Japanese airspace. Tokyo should not abide unauthorized foreign government flights, civil government or military, particularly those which are unable to respond to air traffic control orders.
The lack of transparency and accountability displayed by China further adds to the problem.
Already the open discussion of allowing warning shots following the Y-12 incursion has led China to dispatch fighters in response to ASDF scrambles in January 2013.
It will only take one hot-headed pilot to trigger a skirmish, and China has a track record that does little to alleviate Japanese concerns: the collision between a U.S. Navy EP-3 and Chinese J-8II fighter over Hainan Island in 2001 and the radar lock-on by a Chinese frigate on a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel in March this year mark clear examples.
No-one is in doubt about how China would respond to losing a UAV. An interview with Senior Col. Du Wenlong, a researcher at the PLA Academy of Military Science, was widely quoted in a Kyodo Press release on Sept. 24, 2013: “If Japan shoots down a Chinese UAV, it will be considered as a combat operation,” Du said. “All Japanese aircraft flying into [Chinese recognized] airspace [in the East China Sea] will be shot down.”
Faced with the increasing tensions around its southern islands, Japan is in the process of repositioning and strengthening its forces to meet and deter Chinese activities along its border.
Japan is currently planning to purchase its first Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk in 2015 to strengthen its reconnaissance capabilities in the seas and islands around Okinawa.
Meanwhile, Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism is considering new air control rules to allow UAVs to fly over Japan’s skies.
Responding to this news, Hong Lei, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman, told the press: “By stirring up tensions and creating threats, some countries are making up excuses for the buildup of their military posture. We hope that the Japanese side will take history as a mirror and play a constructive role in regional peace and stability.”
One can only hope that China will do the same.