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Senkaku Sentinels - Air War over the East China Sea

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Senkaku Sentinels - Part 1: Ramping up in a Crisis-Ridden Region

Analysts are still divided about why the Senkaku Incident turned 'hot' in May 2023. The increasingly aggressive stance adopted by China and its People's Liberation Army played a part. Mixed messaging from politicians in both Beijing and Tokyo added to the confusion. But the conflict may simply have been the inevitable outcome of Xi Jinping's escalating, expansionist rhetoric. To get to grips with the Senkaku Incident, it is necessary to review regional events and tensions immediately prior to the outbreak of active hostilities.

"You say youll change the constitution. Well, you know ..."

In March 2018, the Party Constitution of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the 'un-written' State Constitution of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) were revised to eliminate presidential term limits. [1] This effectively made Xi Jinping 'President-for-Life' - as well as CPC Party General Secretary and Chair of the Central Military Commission. World opinion of China had been cooled by the militarization of the South China Sea and perceived 'debt traps' laid by Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative. International attitudes towards China became positively chilly when the July 2021 'Black Sheep' crack-down by the People's Armed Police (PAP) and People's Liberation Army (PLA) in Hong Kong further damaged the PRC's human rights reputation. [2]

Perhaps surprisingly, Beijing did little to halt the exodus of Hong Kong residents lucky enough to have foreign passports. Nor did the social-control meltdown in Hong Kong interfere with the PLA's probings of Taiwan's security arrangements.

Even in the 21st Century, Japanese relations with Taiwan have been intentionally 'opaque' in hopes of maintaining stable (and profitable) Japan-PRC relations. A modest improvement came with the 2021 establishment of the Japan-Taiwan Maritime Cooperation Dialogue (JT-MCD). Outwardly, little changed with the JT-MCD. Japan did not recognize the Republic of China as a sovereign state, only Taiwan as a maritime neighbour. As before, in the event of war between the ROC and PRC, Japan promised little more than humanitarian aid. And Taiwan upheld its territorial claims to 'Tiaoyutai' ... although Japan's 'stewardship' of the Senkaku Islands was acknowledged by Taipei. More positively, the JT-MCD allowed for intelligence sharing between Japan and Taiwan along with the coordination of their respective coast guard activities. [3] Surreptitiously, the coast guards acted as information-sharing intermediaries. 'Sanitized' Japanese Self-Defence Force intelligence was automatically supplied to the Japan Coast Guard (JCG). Intel on Chinese military activities, especially those near Japan's southern archipelago, was then shared with the ROC Coast Guard which, in turn, passed on this information directly to the Taiwanese military.

JT-MCD coordination of coast guards also helped address some fisheries issues through bipartisan research exercises. And there matters may have come to rest. A sea-change (no pun intended) came with the appointment of retired Vice-Admiral Yoji Koda - former Commander-in-Chief, JMSDF Fleet - as head of the Japanese delegation to the JT-MCD. As VAdm Koda had been an advisor to the Japan National Security Secretariat, the Government of Japan took seriously any concerns and warnings he might relay about about Chinese naval strategy. So too did Koda-san's Taiwanese opposites. That was the key motivator for arranging for the covert exchange of military intelligence. It was also a major instigator of a more forward positioning of Japan Coast Guard assets in the aftermath of repeated incursions by the Chinese Haijing [4] around the Senkaku Islands in February 2021.

Haijing High Jinks - 'Little Blue Men' and 'White Hulls'

As it turned out, the Japan Coast Guard's redeployment of assets south to the Ryukyu Islands chain came not a moment too soon. Incursions by Chinese vessels into the Japanese-controlled waters around the Senkakus had begun again in earnest. Towards the end of March 2023, JASDF Kawasaki P-1 aircraft on routine patrols began noting odd formations of Chinese fishing boats skirting the edges of Japanese territorial waters off the Senkaku Islands. By April, a regular cat-and-mouse game had begun between patrolling Japan Coast Guard ships and Chinese small craft pushing closer to the Senkakus. The pattern was worryingly similar to August 2020 when more than 100 small Chinese vessels were used to harass the Senkakus. Once again, Chinese 'fishing boats' transited the region without fishing and, most revealingly, without transmitting the Automatic Identification System (AIS) data, as such vessels are legally required to do.

Encounters became increasingly tense in the waters off the Senkakus during April 2023. As Japan Coast Guard vessels tried to escort interloping 'fishing boats' out of these territorial waters, packs of Chinese boats swarmed and circled the JCG craft. On 17 April, Chinese tactics began to ramp up. After a mock ramming attack by a Chinese boat on a 35-metre JCG Patrol Craft, guardsmen from PC-15 Kurinami [5] prepared to board their erstwhile attacker. That boarding plan was thwarted by the sudden appearance on deck of uniformed Chinese personnel armed with assault rifles. This appearance by the 'Little Blue Men' confirmed that these 'fishing boats' were actually operated by what the US DOD calls the People's Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM). Sensibly, the commander of the PC-15 withdrew to a safe distance and monitored the Chinese flotilla.
After this encounter, relations between the two nations quickly heated. As the Japan Coast Guard deployed more capable vessels around the Senkakus, Chinese Haijing cutters replaced Maritime Militia units. A special delegation of the Government of Japan flew to Beijing in an attempt to cool things down. The diplomatic mission seems to have had the opposite effect. In 'post-game analysis', it has been suggested that Tokyo's failure to invoke Article V of Anpo/Ampo (the 1960 Japan/United States Security Treaty) emboldened the Chinese leadership. However, such maritime clashes had occurred previously without being regarded as "armed attacks by a third party". Clearly, for reasons of internal politics, key members of the Suga Cabinet thought it essential that Japan be seen to be defending itself. [6]

At sea, several attempts were made by Haijing cutters to ram JCG patrol boats. The first incident, on 10 May 2023, involved Haijian 3184, an 1,800 tonne Shuwu class patrol cutter which ran at the 26 tonne Shiraume class patrol boat CL-06 Maya Sakura. [7] With its manoeuvrability and 29 knot top speed, the Maya Sakura was able to evade Haijian 3184. Another JCG patrol boat - the Hayagiku class CL-09 Tobiume was less fortunate. Slightly slower than Shiraume class boats, CL-09 was caught out by a 1,700 tonne Zhaotim class patrol cutter - the Yuzheng 45013. Rammed in its stern, the Tobiume quickly foundered and sunk. The JCG crew was picked up by the Haijing cutter and interned at Wenzhou until their release was negotiated six months after the Senkaku Incident had ended.

The next victim was the 10 metre Orion class surveillance boat, SS-76 Muribushi. [8] Although very fast, these fibreglass 'SS' boats proved vulnerable to the high-pressure water cannons mounted on Haijing cutters. That was the fate of SS-76. With its wheelhouse smashed by water cannons, the disabled 5 tonne craft was run down by Haijian 301, a ship with 100 times the displacement of the JCG boat. Rammed at high speed, the Muribushi didn't so much sink as disintegrate. Its task accomplished, the Haijing's Kaobo class simply sailed away, leaving the survivors from SS-76 to fend for themselves in the water. With that callous act, the Chinese had drawn first blood.

(To be continued ...)


[1] Under the 1978 Party Constitution, Xi would have had to leave office at the end of his second term in 2023.
[2] The 13 July 2021 student protests in Kowloon's Hung Hom district marked the anniversary of the passing of Hong Kong's 'New Security Law'. Xia Baolong, the Director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office was sacked in the aftermath of the protest suppression. However, it seems that most of the civilian casualties were at the hands of the Hong Kong Police Force (and some PLA reservists), not People's Armed Police personnel.

[3] There were also tentative plans within the JT-MCD to permit exchanges of Japanese and ROC military liaison officers. However, a definitive decision on such exchanges was passed over to the 2024 JT-MCD sessions.

[4] This was reinforced by a reorganization of JCG assets - resulting in a considerable increase in the number of hulls assigned to 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters, Okinawa. We have avoided the PRC term 'Chinese Coast Guard'. Despite its use of 'white hulls', the Haijing is a component of the People's Armed Police (PAP).
[5] PC-15 Kurinami (ex-Takamatsu) was one of two Hayanami class Patrol Craft transferred south from the 6th Regional Coast Guard. The other hull was PC-12 Setogiri (ex-Imabari).

[6] This position was most strongly supported by then-Minister of Defence Nobuo Kishi - brother of former PM Shinzo Abe. (In the Feb 2024 Suga Cabinet shuffle, Kishi was moved to the Ministries of Administrative Reform and Civil Service Reform. In the Defence portfolio, Kishi was replaced by his predecessor - Taro Kōno. In that shuffle, Kōno also retained his position as Minister of State for Okinawa and Northern Territories Affairs.) Was Kishi 'shuffled' for advocating that Japan 'go it alone"? Many believe that it was Kishi's off-the-cuff remarks on the desirability of nuclear weapons for Japan which ultimately cost him the Defence portfolio.

[7] 'CL' is for 'Craft, Large' which refers to a variety of JCG general purpose patrol boats with nominal 20 metre lengths.

[8] Somewhat awkwardly, 'SS' is for 'Surveillance boat, Small'. In 2021, the JCG's 11th Regional District had four 'SS' boats - SS-62 Antaresu, SS-75, SS-76 Muribushi, and SS-77. These were later joined by two transfers from the 6th Regional District - SS-63 Bega (ex-Iwakuni) and SS-71 Kentaurusu (ex-Uwajima).

Senkaku Sentinels - Part 2: Jumping from the Kiyomizu Stage [1]

With the loss of the unfortunate helmsman from SS-76 Muribushi, it was obvious to all that China was quite prepared to use deadly force. Less clear was what Beijing's immediate motives were in and around the Senkaku Islands. However, it was apparent that the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) was also increasing its routine proddings and testing of Taiwan's air defences and readiness. Were the April 2023 Chinese probings in the Senkakus a feint intended to draw attention away from some imminent PLA move against Taiwan? No one knew.

"You cant see the whole sky through a bamboo pole" - Over-Flights and ADIZs

The Air Defence Identification Zones (ADIZs) of Japan and the People's Republic of China overlap (see attached map). This was intentional since the PRC claims the Senkaku Islands as its own 'Diaoyu' Islands. On station off remote Taisho Island - the easternmost of the Senkakus - the JCG patrol vessel PLH-06 Okinawa detected overflights by Chinese aircraft enroute for the Taiwanese ADIZ. [2] Since the research vessel JS Asuka (ASE-6102) was then performing trials with an AESA air defence radar system, this Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) ship was redirected to the Senkakus to track Chinese incursions into Japanese air space.

It did not take PLAAF aircraft long to detect radar emissions from the JS Asuka. On 06 May 2023, ASE-6102 found herself being targeted by the locked-on radar of an overflying Chinese Xian H-6M 'Ubazame' medium bomber. [3] This cruise missile carrier did not deviate from its flightpath towards Taiwanese air space but the PLAAF crew kept their targeting radar locked on the JS Asuka as the bomber overflew Uotsuri Island. The implied threat was clear enough - another H-6 variant is a dedicated anti-ship missile carrier. On 09 May, JS Asuka was replaced in its 'radar picket' role by the Kongō class  guided missile destroyer, JS Kirishima (DDG-174). In theory, the JS Asuka was capable of defending itself against air attack - its 8-cell Mk41 VLS being armed with RIM-162 ESSM. However, JS Kirishima has a 90-cell Mk 41 VLS loaded with a preponderance of RIM-66 SM-2MR surface-to-air missiles. Should PLAAF aggression extend beyond radar 'lock-ons', JS Kirishima could respond in kind.

"A single arrow is easily broken, but not ten in a bundle ..."

Chinese landings on the Senkakus took Tokyo off guard. It shouldn't have surprised anyone - Chinese activists had landed there in the past. For the most part, the 'Little Blue Men' landed only long enough to plant Chinese flags before leaving again. Still, these were clear breaches of Japanese sovereignty and the Government of Japan felt obliged to respond in force. Actually, a Japanese 'response in force' had already begun with the deployment of Tokkei-tai personnel aboard JCG craft in the disputed zone. Most of this 'Special Security Team' were armed to prevent Chinese boardings. But Tokkei-tai marksmen were also armed with a mix of 7.62 mm Howa M1500 sniper rifles and 12.7 mm McMillan Tac-50 anti-material rifles. If ramming by a Haijing vessel was imminent, JCG marksmen were under orders to target the Chinese ship's bridge with no warning shots.

Similarly, Japan's Self-Defense Force's Tokubetsu-Keibitai was embarked upon deployed JMSDF ships. This Special Boarding Unit (SBU) was made responsible for disarming any 'Little Blue Men' the JMSDF were able to close with at sea. Boarding parties preferred compact MP5A5 SMGs but Type 20-F carbines were also used. 'Overwatch' of boarding parties was provided with designated marksmen using Heckler & Koch MSG90 sniper rifles and Howa Minimi 5.56mm light machine guns. A pattern was quickly established in boarding operations. Chinese deck crews - especially 'Maritime Milita' - succumbed quickly. Firefights were far more likely to break out below-decks. The revised boarding drill became 'sweep' the decks, then drop smoke grenades down hatches and into vents. Only on a few, rare occasions were follow-up fragmentation grenades required.

Ashore on the Senkakus were members of the Suiriku kido-dan or Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade - with dramatic footage released of the ARDB coming up beaches in their own AAV-7A1 light armoured vehicles. [4] More dramatic still was the deployment of another element of the JSDF's Tokushusakusengun (Special Forces Group) -  the 1st Airborne Brigade (1AB) which was shown parachuting on the islands from 401st Tactical Airlift Squadron (TAS) C-130H Hercules. Equipment drops followed from Kawasaki C-1s of the 403rd TAS. As impressive as all this imagery was, in reality, Japan was less capable than it appeared from such comprehensive and rapid deployments of its troops and equipment. The truth of the matter didn't match the rhetoric of independent action coming from the Government of Japan.

"Stand Back and Stand By" - The Government of Japan Adopts a More Independent Stance

What Tokyo didn't want was a focus on the crucial aid by US forces in Japan. There had been concerns about how the United States would respond to Chinese threats to the Senkakus. Reassurances came within days of President Biden's inauguration - for the new Administration, the Senkakus fell under Article V of the Japan/United States Security Treaty. As reassuring as that was, the Suga Administration was determined to emphasize Japanese resolve and capabilities. That stance primarily reflected the preferences of Suga's hawkish then-Minister of Defence, Nobuo Kishi. This decision not to invoke Article V of the so-called Anpo/Ampo treaty would come back to haunt all post-mortums of the Senkaku Incident. [5]

Behind the scenes, the 1960 Japan/United States Security Treaty remained essential. As noted, the insertion onto the Senkakus of the JSDF's Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade and 1st Airborne Brigade (1AB) made for good media events. Supporting those units once deployed onto these remote islands was another matter. Much of the literal 'heavy lifting' was done on the quiet by the USMC's new 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment based in Okinawa. [6] Officially, these US activities were part of a US Expeditionary Advanced Based Operations (EABO) exercise. In reality, the Marine Corps was adding much-needed logistics support to the JSDF in a conflict zone. Without such back-up, it is unlikely that Japan could have sustained its Senkaku operations in 2023. [7]

USMC assistance had already made another of Japan's material advantages possible. The JMSDF's Izumo class 'helicopter destroyers' were designed from the outset to accommodate STOVL fighters like the Lockheed-Martin F-35B Lightning II (although that was not publicly admitted until 2018). Still, Japan's rapid deployment of shipboard F-35Bs took PLA intelligence off guard. Three factors had contributed to this speedy deployment. First was JASDF access to the F-35B expertise of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 based at MCAS Iwakuni as well as JASDF secondments aboard the USS America (LHA 6) for operational training of Japanese pilots. The second was the willingness of the Marine Corps to defer delivery of a dozen F-35B Lightning IIs in favour of Japan. [8] The third was the JMSDF's decision to not install 'ski slope' decks on its two Izumo class STOVL carriers. That last choice sped up Izumo refits but limited take-off weights for the JASDF F-35Bs. As a result, Lightning IIs operated strictly in the crucially-needed air superiority role throughout the Senkakus Incident.

"Jaku niku kyo shoku" - The weak are meat; the strong eat

With no runways on the Senkaku Islands, the immediate in-theatre air-defence fighter became the JASDF F-35B Lightning IIs embarked aboard the JMSDF's Izumo class 'mini carriers'. Each vessel carried a half-dozen F-35Bs (alongside SH-60K helicopters and V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor craft). JS Kaga was first on station due west of the Senkakus on 28/29 April 2023. She was relieved on 10 May by JS Izumo which was positioned further east, between Taisho Island and the main grouping of the Senkakus. Although the decks of the modest Izumo class carriers were crowded, the ship-launched F-35Bs had a huge advantage over PLAAF opponents flying near the limits of their range and load-carrying abilities.

To back up the ground forces, Japanese Air Self-Defence Force (JASDF) F-15JSI (Japanese Super Interceptor) fighters were deployed to a Forward Operating Location at Shimoji Air Base (a part of Miyako Shimojishima Airport) on Shimoji-shima in the Ryukyus. With their cruising speed of 1,000 km/h, newly-upgraded F-15JSIs on active alert could be scambled from Shimoji and, in less than half an hour, would be intercepting PLAAF H-6 'Ubazame' bombers intruding over the Senkakus. Since it was a flying distance of only 170 km from the southern Ryukyus to the Senkakus, the intercept role could also be performed by the JASDF's single-engined Mitsubishi F-2 fighters. But the latter aircraft were more normally employed in an anti-shipping role.

(To be continued ...)


[1] The Kiyomizu stage is a lofty observation deck at Kyoto's Kiyomizu Temple. Legend says that all wishes will come true if one jumps off this stage but remains uninjured. However, any jumper who dies, goes directly to Nirvana. In other words, commit fully to an endeavor and you cannot lose.

[2] The Okinawa is a 4,000 tonne Tsugaru class 'Patrol vessel, Large, Helicopter'. In the 11th Regional District, PLH-06 has two sister ships - PLH-04 Uruma and PLH-09 Ryukyu. All of the 11th's PLHs are home-ported at Naha.

[3] 'Ubazame' ('Basking Shark') is the slightly derisive JASDF code-name for maritime-role Xian H-6s. In a conventional bomber role, the H-6 is code-named 'Tanuki' - 'Raccoon Dog' being the closest Japanese approximation to the old NATO reporting name 'Badger'.

[4] To address the Chinese overflight challenge, the ARDB were accompanied by air defence missiles (Type 03 Chu-SAM medium-range and Type 11 short-range SAMs) along with their associated truck-based radar. These air defence systems were delivered by the Osumi class LST 4002 Shimokita and put ashore on Uotsuri-shima by the Shimokita's LCAC hovercraft.

[5] In one assessment, Kishi's strong ties with Taiwan are seen as a negative influence. The argument goes, that there would have been deterrence value in an earlier basing of defensive weapons on the Senkakus. Instead, Kishi had emphasized the deployment of radar systems to track Chinese overflights headed for the Taiwanese ADIZ. Another argument places blame with Suga himself. Had Taro Kōno remained Minister of Defence, better advantage might have been taken of Nobuo Kishi's personal connections to Taiwan's leadership - in particular, with President Tsai Ing-wen.

[6] The 3rd MLR was actually the very first Marine Littoral Regiment stood up in 2022. The Regiment's seemingly out-of-sequence numbering results from this unit having evolved from the the 3rd Marine Regiment) ... Expeditionary Advanced Based Operations (EABO)

[7] An example was the delivery in-theatre of Type 88 ground-based coastal defence systems and their SSM-1A missiles. Normally truck-mounted, these missile launchers were quickly palletized to allow their sling-loaded delivery to Uotsuri-shima by USMC MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor transports. Such flight freed up the JASDF's half-dozen operational Ospreys to focus on other tasks.

[8] This deferment was possible because of an earlier decision to reduce the number of aircraft per VMFA squadron.

Old Wombat:
Interesting reading. :smiley:

Senkaku Sentinels - Part 3: Opening Act for the Advantage of Air Power

A lone Japanese strike aircraft was inbound and air-search radars began to light up aboard PLA-Navy East Sea Fleet ships. Multiple PLA-N calls went out for PLAAF top cover and were responded to by two 172nd Brigade J-16 Flanker fighters. Overhead, WSO Kong Jun Showi (Air Force 2nd Lt) Zhang Honglei quickly found the Japanese interloper on radar.  Meanwhile, the PLA-N's anti-aircraft defences got lucky - the first incoming Japanese ASM-2 Kai anti-shipping missile was hit by a Chinese HQ-10 point-defense missile. The second Japanese ASM-2M impacted amidships on a Type 056 Jiangdao class corvette - Quanzhou (588). Lead pilot, Kong Jun Shngwi (AF Major) Bian Xuan and his wingman, Kong Jun Zhongwi (AF 1st Lt) Jin Huihui punched off their drop tanks and dove to intercept. With their Shenyang J-16 Flankers [1] in full afterburner, the Chinese pilots quickly closed the distance.

The second volley of missiles from the Japanese strike aircraft had been launched. The first ASM-2 Kai narrowly missed the 4,000 tonne Type 054A Jiangkai II class frigate Yangzhou (578). The second missile flew high and took out the Yangzhou's Type 382 search radar antenna. With missiles fired, the launch aircraft had turned away to the east to evade the Yangzhou's HQ-16 surface-to-air missiles [2] and anti-aircraft gun fire. Almost at once, the Japanese aircraft reversed its direction and applied afterburner - obviously the fast-diving Chinese fighters had been detected. Easing his throttles, Major Bian fired the first of his PL-10 missiles ... but this 'Pen Lung' [3] homed on the Japanese aircraft's towed RF decoy.

The Japanese aircraft dropped to wavetop height ... while continuing on its odd, westward course. Suddenly, it became apparent that this aircraft was not trying to evade its Chinese pursuers - it was heading straight for the Zibo, a Type 052D Luyang III class destroyer. This had turned into a Kamikaze mission! Bian hit his afterburners again and fired off two more PL-10s. The first 'Pen Lung' struck a wavetop and detonated but the second missile took the tail off of the Japanese fighter. The crippled aircraft hit the surface inverted as the water all around it erupted with exploding shells from the Zibo's AA guns. There was no sign of the Japanese pilot ejecting. As the two J-16s climbed out over the Zibo, Jin's WSO, Kong Jun Showi Liu Jiaji, called 'Bingo Fuel' and the two fighters headed towards Zhangzhou airfield - their temporary home base. [4]

"Seiten no heki-reki" - A Thunderclap From a Clear Sky

Almost immediately, a second Japanese strike aircraft appeared. PLA-N calls resumed for top cover ... but, low on fuel, Bian and Jin could not respond. Evidently, the first JASDF pilot had sacrificed himself to distract from his companion. The second aircraft loosed an ASM-2 Kai missile at the Binzhou - a Type 054A Jiangkai II class frigate - to no effect. With his mount apparently struck by anti-aircraft fire, the Japanese pilot ripple-fired his remaining three missiles at the blinded Zibo. This time, two of those missiles struck with deadly effect. The crippled Japanese aircraft augered in close enough to the Rongcheng - a Type 082 Wozang class mine countermeasures vessel - that this MCM was lightly damaged (although this was unlikley to have been intentional - the aircraft clearly being out of control by that stage). Once again, no pilot was seen to eject from the stricken Japanese aircraft.

In this first major air-to-surface encounter of the Senkaku Incident, results seemed to be mixed. The Japanese had committed their strike aircraft in a rather piecemeal fashion and both aircraft were lost. No East Sea Fleet ships had been sunk. But that was not to say that the PLA-Navy had suffered no losses. The corvette Quanzhou had been holed through her living quarters decks; the Rongcheng MCM had damage to its wheelhouse; and the frigate Yangzhou was a shambles - with fires burning below decks and battle damage to multiple systems. All three vessels had to withdraw and limp back to Wenzhou along with the older Type 053H3 Jiangwei II frigate Putian which had taken the Yangzhou under tow.

As for the lost Japanese aircraft, multiple PLA-N gun crews made claims for the second aircraft downed. For the first, Kong Jun Shngwi Bian Xuan claimed the first Mitsubishi F-2 strike fighter 'kill' of the Senkaku Incident. Understandably, Maj. Bian had misidentified the Japanese aircraft he had shot down. That was no F-2. It was the previously unannounced Lockheed Martin/Mitsubishi A-16AJ - a UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle) conversion of F-16A fighters. In the confusion of conflict, it would take the Chinese military some time to realize that they were now up against unmanned strike aircraft.

The JASDF's maritime strike capability would eventually turn the tide during the Senkaku Incident. However, in this brief air war over the Senkakus, the dramatic events which followed this opening air-sea battle are well-known. It is not our intention to retell those stories here. Rather, we will focus of the development of the aircraft which played those starring roles - the LM/Mitsubishi A-16AJ and the manned Mitsubishi F-2A.

Image The mounts of KJ Shngwi Bian Xuan/KJ Showi Zhang Honglei and KJ Zhongwi Jin Huihui/KJ Showi Liu Jiaji. Both Shenyang J-16Cs lack individual aircraft numbers. Jin's aircraft has a replacement fin tip but features no distinguishing markings. Bian's fighter carries the PLAAF's FTTB crest on its fins and two victory stars below the cockpit on the portside. [5]

(To be continued ...)


[1] Many Japanese pilots found the NATO reporting name 'Flanker' difficult to say. To the JSDF, the PLAAF's Shenyang J-16 was a 'Fuka' (Shark). 'Fuka' was derived from the Chinese nickname 'Feisha' (Flying Shark).

[2] The HQ-16 surface-to-air missiles were also known as FL-3000N (for Naval) Flying Leopards. To the JSDF, the HQ-16 was code-named 'Nutaunagi' (or Hagfish).

[3] In Chinese, Pen Lung means 'Air Dragon' (the PL-10 also being known as the 'Pili' or 'Thunderbolt'). No JSDF code name was applied but the PL-10 was sometimes referred to as Chu-Suzume ('Chinese Sparrow') ... and acknowledgement of its ultimate US origins.

[4] In peacetime, the 172nd Combat Aircraft Air Brigade is home-based at Cangzhou, Hebei. Normally operating as the PLAAF's 'Blue  Force' OpFor unit, the 172nd Bde's two J-16 flight groups were forward-based at Zhangzhou for operations over the East China Sea.

[5] For propaganda purposes, Bian and Zhang were awarded 'kills' for both Japanese aircraft. No doubt this was to the chagrin of PLA-N gunners and the embarassment of the over-rewarded aircrew. The display of the FTTB crest reveals KJ Shngwi Bian's part-time association with that 171st Bde test unit (also home-based at Cangzhou).

Senkaku Sentinels - Part 4: "Review past, know future" [1]

The notion of an unmanned F-16 wasn't new. In the 1990s, Lockheed (and later, Lockheed Martin Tactical Aircraft Systems or LMTAS) [2] proposed or undertook a whole range of improvement programmes for the F-16 Fighting Falcon airframe. The most extreme conversion proposal was the late '90s F-16A Long Range Defender UCAV - involving replacing existing wing panels with thicker, longer, low-aspect ratio wings of 18.29 m span. To suit the pilotless UCAV missions, the F-16 cockpit was to be gutted and replaced with an additional 1,300 litre fuel tank. The F-16's fixed gun armament would also to be removed.

Other F-16 improvement programmes were of a more incremental nature. Two were developed (at least in part) for export F-16As. The first was a tail-mounted braking parachute thought necessary for landing on wet or icy runways. The second were a pair of Conformal Fuel Tanks (CFTs). The latter were tested as 'shapes' in 1994 (although LM did not commence full CFT flight-testing - on an F-16C - until Sept 2001). Use of CFTs more than made up for the lack of a centreline tank - usually replaced on USAF operational missions by an AN/ALQ-131 Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) pod [3] in any case. Pod-carrying USAF F-16As carried twin underwing drop tanks - usually of the smaller 1,400 litre variety [4] - to make up for the absence of a centreline tank. However, on the F-16A, use of an ECM pod and twin drop tanks meant that only two underwing pylons were free for carrying weapons. CFTs freed-up underwing pylon space. And, unlike drop tanks, those CFTs produced very little additional drag.

Both UCAV conversion and Conformal Fuel Tanks played a major part in the design of the Lockheed Martin/Mitsubishi A-16AJ. This joint-venture conversion program made use of old F-16As stored by AMARC at Davis Monthan AFB in Arizona. Removed from storage and with their wings removed, F-16A airframes were trucked the 190 km to a previously under-utilized LM facility in Gilbert, AZ, for a more complete stripdown. From there, airframes were air-shipped to Mitsubishi at Nagoya (either by contracted USAF C-17As or by leased An-124 cargo aircraft from Ukraine's Antonov Airlines). To put it mildly, these procedures were unusual for US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) of surplus equipment. Generally, such sales demand that all upgrade work be performed in the US by American contractors. However, the surplus F-16As were provided under an 'Other Transaction Authority' procedure effectively meaning that the modified airframes remained the property of the US Government.

"Fishing sea bream with shrimp as bait" - Transforming the Fighting Falcon [5]

At Mitsubishi's Komaki South facility at Nagoya, a full stripdown and rebuild line was established for the F-16As. [6] Many of the systems were refurbished but otherwise unchanged - including the Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-220E turbofan engines. The most dramatic visual change introduced was the removal of the cockpit, complete with the F-16A's distinctive canopy. The fly-by-wire F-16A controls lent themselves to UCAV conversion - all control inputs being fully digital to begin with. The forward section of the former cockpit area was occupied by YDK Technologies UCAV control systems and a Subaru RPVC (Remote-Pilot Vision Centre) - revealed by its Fujitsu E/O turret protruding above the revised fuselage profile. Aft of the YDK control systems bay was a new 995 litre 'F4T' (Far-Forward Fuselage Fuel Tank). This F4T fed fuel into the existing forward-fuselage internal tank while the adopted Conformal Fuel Tanks fed the main fuselage tank. [7]

Another upgrade being applied was the LM-supplied Diverterless Supersonic Inlet (DSI) with its large, hump-like structure blended with the lower fuselage. This inlet was designed to slow entering air at supersonic speeds while deflecting boundary layer air. More importantly for the Mitsubishi project, the DSI eliminates the 'corner reflectors' of the F-16A's boundary layer splitter plate while also blocking radar 'views' of the engine's compressor face from low angles. While the base F-16A airframe is in no way 'stealthy', its wing-body blending does reflect incident radar energy away from potential receivers. This unintentional effect, combined with the DSI and removal of the canopy, does serve to reduce the F-16A airframe's radar signature.

While the LM/Mitsubishi modifications could not be considered a 'least-mod' conversion, work progressed quite speedily. The first public sign of progress was a manned analogue completed almost entirely by Lockheed Martin at Gilbert. Final assembly of this 'Proof-of-Concept' aircraft was undertaken by Mitsubishi at Komaki South with its maiden flight being made at Nagoya. The Japan Defence Agency re-designated this POC as their XA-16FTB - for Experimental Attack model 16, Flying Test Bed. This Fighting Falcon was no longer a 'fighter', it was now regarded as a dedicated attack aircraft.

Image The XA-16FTB (Flying Test Bed) manned prototype/POC demonstrator, '019'. Beyond its cockpit, '019' reveals other differences from both the unmanned XA-16AJ prototype which followed and operational A-16AJ UCAV conversions. Note that at this stage, '019' retains its wingtip missile rails while lacking the drag-chute tail-housing of the F-2A. [8] This aircraft was never fitted with Conformal Fuel Tanks - the CFTs being proved on the follow-on XA-16AJ prototype. Another distinct feature of the XA-16FTB was the mocked-up undernose AN/AAQ-40 EOTS housing (this Electro-Optical Targeting System housing being later removed). [9]

Painted in the red-and-white colours of the Air Development & Test Wing, '019' is an ex-USAF block 15 F-16A. The insignia of the ADTW is worn on the tailfin (along with the logo-signature of its parent organization, ATLA). [10] Note that, as a result of Japan's unusual F-16A 'purchase' agreement, the XA-16FTB retains its original USAF serial - 82-1019. (A similar stricture applied to the unmanned prototype XA-16AJ UCAV '738' which also wore its original USAF serial - 81-0738.) Now retired from active JASDF use, the XA-16FTB airframe is currently on loan to the Gifu-Kakamigahara Air and Space Museum.

(To be continued ...)


[1] On ko chi shin is akin to the Chinese weng-zhixin - meaning: gain new insights through restudying old material.

[2] The Fort Worth division of General Dynamics which built the F-16A was sold to Lockheed in March 1993. Lockheed and Martin Marietta then merged in March 1995 to form Lockheed Martin.

[3] The F-16A's 1,135 litre centreline tank was normally used exclusively for ferry missions.

[4] These 370 US gallon/1,400 litre drop tanks were preferred over the optional 600 US gallons/2,270 litres. The latter imposed severe performance limitations upon F-16As - both due to their greater drag penalty and higher weight (each loaded 2,270 litre tanks carrying 1,815 kg of fuel versus only 1,135 kg of fuel for each 1,400 litre drop tank).

[5] Ebi to tai no tsuri means gaining great profit at small cost. Although both are quality ingredients, the lower-value shrimp bait is used to catch the higher-value sea bream for dinner.

[6] This work allowed Mitsubishi to call back workers laid off due to Covid-19 and the resulting 'pause' on the Mitsubishi SpaceJet regional airliner program.

[7] Internal fuel capacity - combining all three fuselage tanks with the wing tanks - now reached close to 5,000 litres (weighing almost 3,950 kg). The set of CFTs carry an additional 1,705 litres (450 US gallons) of fuel (weighing 1,360 kg) for a total fuel load around 6,700 litres (5,310 kg). For ferry purposes, twin 1,400 litre drop tanks (2,800 litres/4,760 kg) could be added for a maximum fuel load of 9,500 litres (10,070 kg).

[8] Some export 'Vipers' featured drag chutes but USAF aircraft did not - hence the 'short' F-16A style tail-housing.

[9] It was found that this Electro-Optical Target System housing caused some undesirable air flow around the engine intake. However, that became a moot point. Despite the AN/AAQ-40 being a standard fitment on JASDF F-35s, the US Congress refused to grant export permission for this EOTS as 'unattached' equipment to Japan.

[10] Better known by its former name, Test Research Development Institute (TRDI), the Ministry of Defense's Acquisition Technology and Logistics Agency (ATLA) now covers both procurement management and acceptance testing of aircraft.


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