Joint Russia-China Military Flights Prompt Japanese, South Korean Fighter Scrambles

December 14, 2023 2:02 PM - Updated: December 15, 2023 2:08 PM
A Russian Tupolev Tu-95 Bear off Japan. Japanese MoD Photo

Russia and China conducted a joint bomber flight over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea on Thursday, causing both South Korea and Japan to scramble fighter jets in response. On the same day, the defense chiefs of Italy, Japan and the U.K. signed a treaty in Tokyo to create a formal trilateral organization to manage and develop the Global Combat Air Programme – a next-generation stealth fighter aircraft to be fielded by 2035.

South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported that South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) stated that two Chinese and four Russian military aircraft were detected prior to entering South Korea’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) between 11:53 a.m. and 12:10 p.m. No violation of South Korean airspace occurred but the JCS stated that fighters were deployed to take “tactical measures” against any contingency. Japan’s Joint Staff Office (JSO) issued a release with a map showing the flight path of Russian and Chinese aircraft – which included bombers, fighters and specialist aircraft – as well as photographs taken by intercepting Japan Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) fighters.

The JSO’s release on Thursday stated that during that morning, two Chinese H-6 bombers entered the Sea of Japan from the East China Sea and joined up with two Russian Tu-95 bombers over the Sea of Japan, after which the four bombers conducted a long-distance flight to the East China Sea and back to the Sea of Japan. While over the Sea of Japan heading to the East China Sea, the bombers were joined by two presumed Russian fighters, according to the release.

In the East China Sea, two J-16s, a single presumed Chinese fighter and a flight of two presumed Chinese fighters joined and departed the bomber flights on separate occasions. When the Chinese bombers flew from the East China Sea to the Tsushima Strait on the return leg, they were joined by a Y-8 electronic warfare and two presumed Chinese fighters. After passing through the Tsushima Strait to enter the Sea of Japan, the Russian bombers were joined by a single Russian Su-35 fighter and a presumed Chinese fighter and, subsequently, two Russian Su-35 fighters flew with the Tu-95 bombers over the Sea of Japan. The JSO release went on to say that while the Russian bombers were flying a single Tu-142 maritime patrol aircraft around the Sea of Japan. Fighters of the JASDF Western Air District were scrambled in response, stated the JSO.

China’s Ministry of National Defense issued a short release on Thursday stating, “According to the annual cooperation plan between the Chinese and Russian militaries, on December 14, the two sides organized and implemented the 7th joint strategic air patrol in the relevant airspace of the Sea of​​Japan and the East China Sea.” The Russian Ministry of Defence issued a longer release stating that Russian Aerospace Forces and People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) conducted another joint air patrol in the Asia-Pacific region. According to teh release the aircraft group consisted of Tu-95MS strategic missile carriers and H-6K strategic bombers. They carried out air patrols over the waters of the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea. “At certain stages of the route, the strategic missile carriers were escorted by fighters from foreign countries. In the course of their missions, the aircraft of both countries acted strictly in accordance with the provisions of international law. There were no violations of the airspace of foreign states,” said the release.

Russia and China last conducted a joint bomber flight in June, while a previous joint flight in November 2022 coincided with a meeting of the Quad alliance in Tokyo. Thursday’s flight coincided with a treaty signed by Italian Defence Minister Guido Crosetto, Japanese Defense Minister Minoru Kihara and U.K. Secretary of Defence Grant Shapps establishing a formal trilateral organization – GCAP International Government Organisation – to manage and develop the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP). The treaty must be ratified by the respective parliaments of the three countries, though it is not expected this will be an issue. A Japan Ministry of Defense release stated that three ministers also welcomed the progress made by industry partners to launch the joint business construct, which will be an industry counterpart of GIGO, to support capable, affordable and timely program delivery, including the 2035 in service date.

The GIGO headquarters and corresponding joint business construct will be located in the UK and, to ensure and foster an effective and well-balanced partnership among the three countries, the first chief executive of the GCAP Agency will be from Japan and the first chief executive officer of the joint business construct will be from Italy. A BAE release on Thursday stated that discussions on the future joint industrial construct to deliver GCAP are continuing, with representatives from Leonardo, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and BAE Systems – who are part of a collaboration agreement – meeting recently in Tokyo.

On Thursday, during a visit to Yokosuka naval base, Shapps announced that the Royal Navy carrier strike group will visit Japan as part of its 2025 Indo-Pacific deployment. The visit was expected, given the Queen Elizabeth CSG, which deployed to the Indo-Pacific in 2021, also visited Japan. Japan has been keen to draw on the U.K.’s experience operating carrier-based F-35Bs as it prepared to operate its own F-35Bs off its Izumo class destroyer carriers. A Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force delegation embarked on carrier HMS Prince of Wales (R09) for two weeks to observe F-35B trials conducted by the carrier. Prince of Wales is expected to carry out the 2025 deployment.

Dzirhan Mahadzir

Dzirhan Mahadzir

Dzirhan Mahadzir is a freelance defense journalist and analyst based in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia. Among the publications he has written for and currently writes for since 1998 includes Defence Review Asia, Jane’s Defence Weekly, Navy International, International Defence Review, Asian Defence Journal, Defence Helicopter, Asian Military Review and the Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter.

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