By Hanzawa Naohisa, Sankei staff writer
In May 2022, the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning made a powerful demonstration of force to Japan, the U.S., and Taiwan. The Chinese military also deployed bombers together with the Russian military. The series of activities was staged on the Pacific Ocean, as if to pierce a hole in Japan’s air defense.
An attack on Taiwan from both east and west
Liaoning, which was the first of the two aircraft carriers deployed by the Chinese military, went into service in 2012. On May 2, 2022, Liaoning sailed through the “Miyako Strait,” between the main island of Okinawa and Miyako Island, and advanced to the Pacific Ocean. From May 3, it sailed from the south to the west of Okidaito Island and approached Taiwan, while deploying and retrieving the carrier-capable fighter J-15. After Liaoning arrived in waters south of Ishigaki Island on May 6, J-15s took off and landed on it for more than 10 hours every day.
Liaoning boldly remained in waters south of Okinawa and returned to China on May 21.
This is Liaoning’s seventh deployment since 2016, when Liaoning first passed through the Miyako Strait to the Pacific Ocean. This seventh deployment has the following characteristics: 1) Liaoning was accompanied by a maximum of seven ships; 2) It sailed for a long period of time; 3) Carrier-based aircraft continued to take off and land on it for a long time until nightfall.
The purpose of an aircraft carrier is to deploy carrier-based aircraft. This time, Liaoning deployed and retrieved its carrier-based aircraft more than 300 times. Liaoning’s deployment showed that China is gaining confidence in its open-sea strategy although it does not have an alternative base for aircraft to land in place of Liaoning. The exercises also showed that China is improving its practical operational capabilities.
Around the same time, the Chinese military also deployed air power from the mainland. From May 5 to 8, H-6 bombers entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) from the west, flew over the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines, and continued to the east of Taiwan.
A top Self-Defense Forces (SDF) official says, “These actions demonstrated China’s strategy to attack Taiwan from both sides, with Liaoning’s carrier-based aircraft from the east coordinating with the mainland’s air power from the west.” It is obvious that Japan’s Nansei Islands will be part of the battlefield in the event of a Taiwan contingency.
Around the time of Liaoning’s return on May 21, the Chinese military took further demonstrative actions. The Russian military also joined the exercises. On May 18, the Chinese H-6 flew from the Miyako Strait to the Pacific Ocean and back. On May 24, the H-6 and the Russian bomber TU-95 flew far into the Pacific Ocean through the Miyako Strait.
The SDF’s alert and surveillance posture seems precarious in the event of Chinese and Russian aircraft’s flights into airspace over the Pacific Ocean. This is because Japan has no air defense radar that monitors the approach to the airspace above the Pacific Ocean.
Ways to augment Japan’s weaknesses
How can the SDF make up for its weaknesses? There are three ways.
First, Japan should install mobile radars in Shikoku and the Ogasawara Islands as an emergency measure. Then the mobile radar should be switched to a fixed radar with higher capabilities.
It was in 1960 that the SDF prepared to install fixed radars at 28 locations nationwide, but the situation has not changed since then. There is no way we can respond to China and Russia, who are intensifying their aggression, with a posture dating from 62 years ago. If “a considerable increase in defense spending” is to be secured by accumulating necessary measures, as Prime Minister Kishida Fumio says, the increase can be used to strengthen the radar network.
The second way is to improve capabilities of existing equipment. The Ministry of Defense (MOD) has begun development of a new radar. This radar can detect aircraft flying beyond the horizon by taking advantage of the characteristics of shortwave, a type of radio wave that propagates on the surface of the sea. If the SDF can be equipped with such a radar, the alert monitoring system will be multi-layered.
It takes time to develop and deploy a radar, however. There is another approach that is essential and can be immediately implemented: Information sharing with Taiwan.
I have discussed earlier the possibility of a Chinese military aircraft passing over the Ogasawara Islands from the Bashi Channel to head for Tokyo. If Japan can obtain information from Taiwan that the Chinese military is passing through the Bashi Channel, the SDF may deploy an E-2C aircraft in advance, which will enable the SDF to better prevent an approach to Japanese airspace.
For Taiwan, Japanese radar information that monitors the Miyako Strait would be useful. If the Chinese military were to invade Taiwan, troops might try to secure an advantage in the surrounding airspace. Since 2016, Chinese military aircraft have conspicuously flown around Taiwan from the Bashi Channel and the Miyako Strait.
The Bashi Channel and Miyako Strait form one airspace in a hypothetical Taiwan contingency and a Nansei Islands contingency, which are likely to be linked.
In return for obtaining information from Taiwan on the passage of Chinese military aircraft through the Bashi Channel, Japan can provide information to Taiwan on China’s passage through the Miyako Strait, to establish a give-and-take relationship. If the Japanese government is reluctant to share official information with Taiwan, the establishment of a closed private hotline utilizing former SDF officers and others would immediately pave the way for information sharing.
The Japanese government should think hard and develop strategies, rather than receiving China’s and Russia’s attacks like a punching bag. (Abridged)