On 11 January, China’s defense ministry confirmed that Chengdu J-10 fighters had been dispatched to keep an eye on two F-15 aircraft operated by Japan. According to its statement, the F-15s were trailing a Shaanxi Y-8 patrolling near a cluster of islands in
the East China Sea that are contested by Beijing and Tokyo.
Irrespective of the merits of either party’s claim to these islands, neither side appears willing to back down. Although the prospect of an all-out war over what Tokyo calls the Senkaku and Beijing the Diaoyu islands is remote, any conflict that may develop would involve air combat – possibly on a large scale. This would lead to Japan’s historically strong air force being challenged by an ambitious newcomer.
In recent years China’s air force has made significant strides. It now operates almost 500 advanced fighters, including about 200 single-engined J-10s and more than 270 Shenyang J-11s and Sukhoi Su-27s. It also operates several hundred more examples of older types, including nearly 400 J-7s: a license-built version of the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21.
Despite China’s apparent numerical equality, experts feel it is in no position to impose and maintain aerial superiority – let alone aerial supremacy – over the disputed area.
“In short, Japan has a significant edge,” says Oriana Mastro, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank. “But the Chinese can create challenges for Japan to maintain aerial superiority.”
One challenge facing Japan, she feels, is its ability to provide constant surveillance of the disputed islands. As Chinese naval and aircraft activities become more routine, it will become harder for Tokyo to determine Beijing’s intentions.
Another regional defense expert feels that Beijing would be at a significant disadvantage in any shooting war over the islands.
“They can fly a few J-10s out and perhaps fly alongside Japanese F-15s, but could they sustainably project power that far out from the mainland over an extended period?” he asks. “China only has limited experience using its [Xian] H-6 as tankers.” Tokyo, by contrast, can call on a four-strong fleet of Boeing KC-767s.
Another area where Beijing is weak is in airborne early warning and control (AEW&C). Its new force of Y-8-based KJ-200 and adapted Ilyushin Il-76 KJ-2000 platforms are untested, while Japan has four recently upgraded E-767 AEW&C aircraft (below) and 13 Northrop E-2C Hawkeyes.
“In a conflict Japan would have far better situational awareness,” the source says. “Also, Japanese pilots are able to operate autonomously of ground control, but Chinese fighters would likely operate under GCI [ground controlled interception].”
“The trajectory is what concerns the US,” Mastro says. “China can create challenges without catching up, and they don’t need to catch up to achieve political victories. With air power tipping in China’s favor, Beijing may be more inclined to use force.”