The Maritime Self-Defense Force for the first time has allowed reporters onboard a P-3C patrol plane during a nighttime surveillance training flight designed to prepare for an invasion or other threat to Japan.
Such patrols are held regularly as part of warning and surveillance operations that the MSDF has beefed up amid the growing tension with China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea area.
The territorial row was sparked by the Japanese government’s decision to buy some of the islets from their private owner in September 2012, effectively nationalizing them, after then-Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, an outspoken nationalist, made a bid. This angered the Chinese, who covet the islets as their own.
The MSDF also sends P-3C patrol planes to areas surrounding Hokkaido and over the Sea of Japan for both day and night surveillance.
Reporters were aboard a P-3C that took off the Kanoya Air Base in Kagoshima Prefecture at 7 p.m. Thursday.
As the plane headed west through the darkness from Kyushu and across the East China Sea, the crew sought to identify vessels using radar and an infrared camera.
About an hour into the flight, when the P-3C was 200 km from the air base, a radar operator detected a cargo vessel and reported it over the loudspeaker.
The 43-year-old pilot in command of the flight, Lt. Cmdr. Fumihiro Uchiyama, spotted the ship’s lights as the plane flew at about 300 meters above the sea.
“As the crew on a night patrol has to concentrate on tracking ships in the darkness, there have been cases of planes getting close to island mountains without the crew being aware of it,” said crew member Lt. Cmdr. Daisuke Kato, 34.
Kato, who as a tactical aircraft navigating officer was in charge of gathering and providing surveillance information to the captain, added that the inherent difficulty of night patrols demands intense safety precautions.
Eight cargo ships and one tanker were identified and tracked during the two-hour flight, with crew members continuously providing up-to-the-minute information.
In March, a P-3C tracked an unidentified submarine cruising underwater in the contiguous zone off the Okinawa Prefecture island of Miyakojima, near Japanese territorial waters. It is believed the submarine was Chinese.
“We can’t afford to miss any information as the situation in the East China Sea is sensitive,” said Rear Adm. Naoki Sonoda, 52, of the MSDF Fleet Air Wing 1. “We need to (maintain control of the situation) with caution and in a resolute manner so as not to stir up the tensions.”