New Japanese Air Force emerges

Japan’s announced decision last December to buy the F-35B STOVL variant came as a surprise to many observers.

The Japanese Air Self Defence Force (JASDF) lives in a tough neighbourhood. In the south, China is trying to gain control of the Senkaku Islands using gray zone tactics, flying long-range bombers, sailing aircraft carriers and pushing fighters close to Japan’s main islands. In the west, a bellicose North Korea has deployed several hundred Nodong missiles capable of reaching almost anywhere across Japan and is further developing nuclear weapon capabilities. In the north, Russia recently deployed Bastion anti-ship missiles and Su-35 fighters to the disputed adjacent Northern Territories. Russia now flies hundreds of mission annually that penetrate Japan’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). Japan’s strategic guidance reflects this challenging setting.

The country’s national defence objectives are to create a favourable security environment, deter threats by making it difficult for any attack to reach Japanese territory and implying serious consequences would follow such an attack, and lastly to minimize the damage any attack might cause. These objectives apply to the ‘big war’ case of an attack on the Japanese home islands but also to any attempted small, uninhabited island seizures – like China capturing the Senkakus.

The JASDF is a large modern air force with a broad suite of capabilities that all contribute to meeting these defence objectives. A particular burden though falls on its sizeable fighter force of some 370 aircraft. This force has its origins in the Cold War and while well-equipped is showing its age. Now with Japan’s neighbours rearming and especially with the emergence of a large advanced People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), the fighter force has begun a major modernization program. The fighter modernization is impressive and well-funded but will probably fall somewhat short. China will always be able to outbuild Japan in terms of quantity. In broad terms, the fighter force’s two main roles are air defence and strike. The JASDF is modernizing in both dimensions.

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