The U.S. Just Flew B-52s Through China’s Early Warning Zone

Bomber patrol calls into question Beijing’s ability to enforce claims

The U.S. Just Flew B-52s Through China’s Early Warning Zone The U.S. Just Flew B-52s Through China’s Early Warning Zone

Uncategorized November 26, 2013 1

B-52 based in guam during a 2007 exercise. Navy photo The U.S. Just Flew B-52s Through China’s Early Warning Zone Bomber patrol calls into... The U.S. Just Flew B-52s Through China’s Early Warning Zone
B-52 based in guam during a 2007 exercise. Navy photo

The U.S. Just Flew B-52s Through China’s Early Warning Zone

Bomber patrol calls into question Beijing’s ability to enforce claims

Two U.S. B-52 bombers took a trip through China’s new expanded air identification zone on Monday—and the Pentagon didn't give Beijing a heads-up before it happened.

The bombers, based at Anderson Air Force Base in Guam, also flew over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, the site of a fierce territorial dispute between Japan and China over who has claim to the islands.

The B-52s made the trip without an escort and were unarmed.

According to Pentagon officials, the flight was a routine trip planned long before China announced an expansion to its East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone. The zone is enclosed by China’s outer limit of its territorial sea and has several rules for aircraft flying within it.

For one, aircraft transiting the zone to file a flight plan with Chinese authorities. Aircraft also have to keep a transponder flipped on (if one is on board) and for aircraft to be clearly marked as to their origins.

If incoming planes don’t do these things, Beijing says it can intercept them and even bring them down, if necessary.

But China’s ability and willingness to enforce the zone is less certain—the bombers appear to have made the trip without harassment. And the B-52 flight is a sign the U.S. military isn't taking Beijing’s declarations all that seriously.

Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter carrier JS Hyuga on June 10,2013. Navy photo

Mutual dispute

When China announced the zone on Nov. 23, the international reaction was swift and negative. The head of Japan’s Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceania Affairs Bureau called the zone “totally unacceptable” in a protest to the Chinese ambassador.

Both the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon issued statements criticizing the Chinese decision, with the latter statement going as far as to reaffirm that the Senkakus fall under the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty.

China claims the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, traditionally rich fishing grounds and believed to hold significant oil and gas deposits, based on historical grounds. Beijing also argues that Japan—which administers the islands—only gained them when it annexed the islands in the late 19th century from China and kept them illegally after the Second World War.

For its part, Japan has asserted that the islands belong to Tokyo, and steadfastly refuses to even acknowledge that ownership of the islands is in dispute.

The dispute had mostly kept on the back burner but flared in 2012 when a right-wing Japanese politician tried to raise money to buy the islands from their private owner with the intention of staging a symbolic “re-taking” of the islands.

Trying the head off the attempt, the Japanese government bought the islands outright.

Large scale, sometimes violent, anti-Japanese protests erupted across China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and even among the Chinese diaspora in the United States. Since then, China has been sending ships from its civilian coast guard into the contiguous zone around the islands on a regular basis.

Japan and China’s overlapping air-defense identification zones. Google Maps image

Tensions in the air

In the air, the steady drumbeat of escalating pressure is also being felt.

Japan’s Defense Ministry has already noted a steady uptick in Chinese military aircraft being intercepted by Japan Air Self-Defense Force F-15s in the East China Sea over the preceding years. With the dispute now in the open, China’s military flights in the region have become more numerous and ambitious in nature.

New types of aircraft also made appearances including, for the first time, an unmanned drone belonging to the Chinese Navy intercepted by the JASDF in September.

To be fair, not all of these overflights have to do with the dispute, and could simply be a result of China’s improving military capabilities and a corresponding increase in the complexity and scale of training exercises. But they could also be part of what has already been dubbed as the Chinese “cabbage strategy” to change facts on the ground (or in the air in this case) in reference to China’s territorial disputes.

Whatever it is, it certainly ratchets up the tension in an already tense region.

None of this means China’s air-defense zone is illegal. The U.S. maintains a similar ADIZ off its own coasts, and unidentified aircraft are routinely intercepted by U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard fighter jets. Japan has maintained a similar ADIZ in surrounding airspace since the 1960s, and routinely intercepts foreign military aircraft—mostly Russian and Chinese—flying in the zone.

What has really raised eyebrows—and heckles in Japan—is that China’s ADIZ encompasses the airspace over the disputed islands.

More worryingly, there is a significant area of overlap between the two countries’ respective air-defense zones. This could potentially result in interceptors on both sides encountering each other in the tense airspace near the Senkakus, and could lead to an East Asian version of the numerous “mock” dogfights between the Greek and Turkish Air Forces over the Aegean Sea in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Those dogfights resulted in the loss of several fighter jets and crew on both sides due to aggressive maneuvering, mid-air collisions and even actual shoot downs using live missiles.

Chinese J-10. Chinese Internet photo

Military build-up

So should aerial confrontations occur over the East China Sea, who will likely be the protagonists?

There are four air bases situated less than 275 miles—which works out to about 15 minutes flying time—from the Senkakus/Diaoyu, and all house frontline air combat fighters. Two of these belong to the Chinese air force, while across the East China Sea at Okinawa, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force and U.S. Air Force have one each.

On the Chinese side, Fuzhou and the newly built base near the town of XiaPu (see analysis of satellite imagery) are within striking distance of the disputed islands. Both bases have had significant work done to harden their facilities, including camouflaged and hardened aircraft shelters. The latter was only completed sometime between 2010 and 2011, and Chengdu J-10 fighters have already been sighted there.

Across the East China Sea, Japan’s nearest base is located at Naha, the capital of the island of Okinawa. Sharing a runway with Naha’s civilian airport, the JASDF’s 204th Hikotai (Flying Unit) operates the licence-built F-15J/DJ Eagles.

This unit has been at the front line of tensions between China and Japan, being the unit closest to where Chinese military aircraft show up in Japan’s ADIZ. Japan also plans to move half of its E-2 Hawkeye early-warning fleet from northern Japan to Okinawa in 2014 to improve warning times against Chinese air activity.

Not an active participant, but an interested party nonetheless, is the United States. Barely 10 miles to the northeast of Naha is the sprawling Kadena Air Base. Among the numerous types of aircraft based there are two squadrons of Boeing F-15C/D Eagle air superiority fighters equipped with modern active electronically scanned array radars.

The Eagles are backed up by six-monthly rotations of a squadron of F-22 Raptor air-dominance fighters. With the U.S. having already declared that it does not recognize China’s ADIZ and vowing to challenge it by ignoring China’s rules when flying its military aircraft in the area, the stage looks set for more tense times ahead.

Unlike Greece and Turkey, who are both NATO members who were willing to let the United States mediate between them, there is a lack of a similar regional mechanism to defuse any similar situations. As it is, China has already announced its first ADIZ patrol, which was duly intercepted by Japanese interceptors.

Given the mutual disdain both sides hold for each other, there is a very real fear that any incidents could rapidly escalate into something much nastier.