The Air Self-Defense Force said Wednesday that jet fighter scrambles have reached a level not seen since the height of the Cold War three decades ago, as Russian bombers probe its northern skies and Chinese combat aircraft intrude into its southern air space.
In the year ending March 31, Japanese fighters scrambled 944 times, 16 percent more than the same period the previous year, according to the Self-Defense Forces.
That is the second-highest number of encounters ever recorded over the 12-month period since records began in 1958 and only one less than a record 943 scrambles in 1984.
“It represents a sharp increase,” an SDF spokesman said at a press briefing. While not a direct measure of Russian and Chinese military activity, the numbers nonetheless point to an increase in operations by Japan’s two big neighbors.
While coping with the growing military might of a more assertive China that is increasing defense outlays by more than 10 percent a year, Japan is also contending with the military resurgence of a Cold War foe that has gathered pace since Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine last year.
Japan, too, is upping defense spending, albeit by a smaller margin, to buy new equipment, including longer-range patrol aircraft, cargo jets, helicopter carriers, troop-carrying Boeing V-22 Ospreys and Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter jets.
A non-fiscal boost to military capability will also come from plans by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to loosen constitutional constraints on the SDF that will allow them to operate more freely overseas and to deepen cooperation with U.S. forces.
Russian bombers and patrol planes often enter Japan’s air space close to Hokkaido and four smaller Russian-held islands also claimed by Japan.
That territorial dispute has prevented Japan and Russia from concluding a formal peace treaty. The Russian aircraft commonly fly circuitous routes around the Japanese archipelago.
Incursions by Chinese fighter jets are concentrated in the East China Sea, close to disputed uninhabited islets near Taiwan that Tokyo administers as the Senkaku Islands. Beijing claims them as Diaoyu and Taiwan calls them Tiaoyutai.
In the past year, more Chinese planes have flown through Japanese air space into the Western Pacific, the SDF spokesman said.