Jet fighter scrambles by Japan have soared back to Cold War levels in the face of increased air incursions by neighbouring Russia and China.
JSDF’s F-15 fighter flies during the JSDF Air Review to celebrate 60 years since the service’s founding, at Hyakuri air base in Omitama
Japanese warplanes were sent up 943 times in the year to March – a 16% increase on the previous year – according to the country’s Self Defence Force (SDF).
This is the second highest number of intercept flights ever recorded over a 12-month period since records began in 1958 and only one less than a record 944 in 1984.
An SDF spokesman said: “It represents a sharp increase.”
Although not a direct measure of Russian and Chinese military activity, the figures indicate an increase in operations by the two countries.
It reflects an increasingly assertive China which is hiking defence spending by more than 10% a year and a resurgent Russia in the wake of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea last year.
Japan has also increased defence spending, although to a lesser extent, buying a range of new military hardware, including longer-range patrol aircraft, cargo jets, helicopter carriers and stealth fighters.
The military is also set to be boosted with plans by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to relax constitutional restrictions on the country’s defence forces that will allow them to operate more freely overseas and increase cooperation with US forces.
Russian bombers and patrol planes often enter Japan’s airspace close to Japan’s northern Hokkaido island and close to four smaller islands which are claimed by both countries.
There was also an upturn in Russian reconnaissance flights close to Japan following a missile launch by North Korea last year and joint military exercises held by the US and South Korea around the same time.
Chinese fighter incursions are concentrated in the East China Sea, close to disputed uninhabited islands near Taiwan.
The SDF spokesman said an increased number of Chinese planes have flown through Japanese airspace into the Western Pacific over the last year.
Japan is not the only country contending with increased military activity by Moscow.
RAF Typhoon jets were scrambled this week after Russian military aircraft were identified flying close to UK airspace.
And warships from Russia’s Northern Fleet entered the English Channel ahead of planned anti-aircraft and anti-submarine drills.
They are the latest in a series of similar incidents in recent months amid strained relations over Ukraine.