• Kyodo, Staff report

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Faced with a barrage of activity in the East China Sea, Japan has decided to only scramble fighter jets when Chinese military aircraft threaten to violate the country’s airspace, government sources have said.

The change in policy comes as the Defense Ministry seeks to shift from reactively mobilizing aircraft to proactive surveillance, freeing up resources to concentrate on more high-level training using its latest F-35 stealth fighters, the sources said Tuesday.

The number of times jets were scrambled in fiscal 2020 has fallen drastically due to the new restrictive policy despite China’s continued assertiveness in the East China Sea during the pandemic, according to the Defense Ministry.

The Air Self-Defense Force is currently upgrading its fleet to F-35 stealth fighters, but they are not suited for scrambling — an act which aims to show off a country’s military presence to foreign aircraft in order to deter them from entering its airspace.

Reducing the number of times it scrambles jets is likely aimed at improving operational efficiency and reducing the burden on pilots and aircraft. It is also expected to allow the ASDF to increase high-level training with the F-35 jets.

China has ramped up its military activities in the East China Sea since September 2012 when Tokyo put the disputed Senkaku Islands under state control. Beijing claims the islets and calls them the Diaoyu.

“In the East China Sea our fighter jets scramble against Chinese airplanes almost every day, sometimes more than once,” then-Defense Minister Taro Kono said last June.

According to experts, the ASDF’s F-15J fighters take on the brunt of the scramble tasking, with the near-daily scrambles threatening to gradually wear the fleet out, potentially driving up maintenance costs and leaving pilots fatigued.

Japan scrambled fighter jets against Chinese aircraft a record 851 times in fiscal 2016, and 675 times in fiscal 2019. But under the new restrictions, it scrambled jets 331 times in the first nine months of fiscal 2020, which began last April, 192 times less than over the same period the previous year.

The ASDF will monitor the nationality and route of aircraft flying in the Air Defense Identification Zone set up outside its airspace using radar sites and airborne early warning systems.

Military personnel will be on watch 24 hours a day so fighter jets can be immediately dispatched to respond to any potential threats.

The ASDF plans to eventually procure 147 F-35 fighter jets, including the F-35A type used by the U.S. Air Force and the F-35B type used by the U.S. Marine Corps, to replace F-15s that cannot be modernized.

The first batch of around 20 F-35s will be deployed at Misawa Base in Aomori Prefecture by the end of fiscal 2020 that ends this month.

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