US and Japan have conducted a tactical joint military exercise in the airspace of the Sea of Japan with the participation of eight fighter jets to demonstrate the allied forces’ readiness to bounce regional threats, the Japanese Joint Staff (JJS)announced on Thursday.
“The JSDF [Japan Self-Defense Forces] and US Armed Forces conducted the Bilateral Exercise as described below. This Exercise affirms the readiness of JSDF and US Armed Forces and further strengthens the capacity of [Japan]-US alliance,” the JJS said in a statement.
The drills were conducted on Wednesday with the participation of four of Japan’s F-15 fighter aircraft and four US F-16 fighters.
“JSDF and US Armed Forces routinely cooperate closely in peacetime and maintain high levels of operational readiness to respond to any situation to defend our nation and contribute to peace and stability,” the read.
In turn, the US Indo-Pacific Command said the drills sought “to showcase combined capabilities to deter and counter regional threats” as well as to demonstrate the US forces’ rapid reaction capabilities and “credible deterrent capacity.”
“The United States and Japan remain committed to jointly working to ensure peace and security throughout the Indo-Pacific region,” the US command said.
Japanese news agency Kyodo noted that the drills occurred in the wake of another round of North Korean missile tests on Wednesday, while also not ruling out that the overflight could have come as a response to Chinese and Russian military aircraft patrolling areas in the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea.
China and Russia conducted a joint air patrol in the Asia-Pacific region on May 24 shortly after US President Biden wrapped up his Asia Trip. The flight by nuclear-capable bombers from both countries reflected increasing military cooperation amid tensions between the US and the West.
This was the fourth such joint flight by the air forces of China and Russia and the first one since the Ukraine war. Chinese and Russian warplanes flew above the Sea of Japan, the East China Sea, and the West Pacific Ocean, according to the press release by China’s Ministry of National Defense.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force sent H-6K strategic bombers, and the Russian Aerospace Forces dispatched Tu-95MS strategic missile carriers, with Su-30SM aircraft providing escort to the air group, according to a press release from the Russian Defense Ministry.
South Korea’s military said that multiple Chinese and Russian warplanes entered South Korea’s air defense identification zone (KADIZ), prompting its air force to scramble fighters to the scene.
According to Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), first, the two Chinese H-6 bombers entered the KADIZ at 7:56 a.m. local time. They moved toward the Sea of Japan, known as the ‘East Sea’ in South Korea before exiting the zone at around 9:33 a.m. local time.
This was followed by the two Chinese bombers joining four Russian warplanes, including two TU-95 bombers to enter the KADIZ together at 9:58 a.m. local time.
South Korean fighter jets were scrambled “to conduct tactical steps” in response, JCS said, but the Russian and Chinese planes did not enter the country’s territorial airspace.
The Sino-Russian Combined Bomber Fleet
The Tupolev Tu-95MS from the Russian side is a four-engine, long-range, turboprop, strategic bomber developed by JSC Tupolev Design Bureau. It is among the oldest aircraft designs still in service with the Russian military that first took to the skies in 1952.
It was developed in the 1950s after a request from the Soviet planners for a four-engine bomber that could fly 8000 km and hit targets across the United States.
The Tu-95MS is also the only propeller-powered bomber in service anywhere in the world presently. Powered by four NK-12MP turboprop engines, the bomber has a maximum speed of 830km/h and a cruise speed of 550km/h with a flight range of 10,500 km that can be extended up to 14,100km with one flight refueling.
The Tu-95MS can carry 6 Kh-15 air-launched cruise missiles with a range of 2,500km in its drum launcher. Furthermore, it is equipped with 2 Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-23 twin-barrelled, 23mm automatic cannons at the rear for self-defense against airborne threats. Each cannon can fire at a rate of 2,400 rounds per minute.
Its MS-6 variant can be armed with 6 Raduga Kh-55 (AS-15) subsonic air-launched cruise missiles in a rotary launcher, while the MS-16 variant is capable of carrying 16 Kh-55 missiles externally.
Also, the bomber can further be modified to carry up to 8 Kh-101 air-launched cruise missiles or 14 Kh-65 anti-ship missiles.
Meanwhile, the H-6K from the Chinese side is an updated version of the H-6 medium-range bomber. It is designed for long-range attacks and stand-off attacks. The H-6K has a much lesser range of 3 500 km, as it is meant to be used against US carrier battle groups and priority targets in Asia.
The bomber can carry 6 air-launched CJ-10A cruise missiles with conventional or nuclear warheads. The CJ-10 is the first long-range land attack missile developed in China, particularly designed to counter the US Navy’s carrier battle groups.
The missile has a range of 2 000-2 200 km, thereby extending the bomber’s range to about 4 000-5 000 km, long enough to reach Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, Guam, Hawaii, and Alaska from the mainland China without leaving air defense zone. It can also carry YL-12 anti-ship missiles with a range of around 400 km.
Joint Bomber Mission Signals Growing Military Ties
The joint Sino-Russian air patrol came shortly after Biden wrapped his trip, during which he met with South Korean and Japanese leaders, as well as with leaders of the Quad, a multilateral grouping seen as an effort to counter China’s expansionist policies in the Asia-Pacific.
“We believe the fact that this action was taken during the Quad summit makes it more provocative than in the past,” Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told reporters.
The Chinese military expert and TV commentator said that the Japanese Defense Minister’s comments were out of ‘guilty conscience’ because the summit is aimed at China.
The joint Sino-Russian bomber mission underlines the growing military ties between the two countries at a time when both face increasing pressure from the West, especially amid the war in Ukraine which has led the West to sanction Russia and pressure Beijing to distance itself from Moscow.
“We think it shows that China continues to be willing to closely align themselves with Russia, including through military cooperation,” a senior US administration official reportedly said, adding that such actions must be planned well in advance.
“China is not walking away from Russia. Instead, the exercise shows that China is ready to help Russia defend its east while Russia fights in its west,” the official further added.
In addition, the joint patrols serve the practical purpose of enhancing interoperability between the Russian and Chinese air forces.
Some Russian analysts have suggested that going ahead these military collaborations could form a shared pool of support assets, such as AWACS aircraft and tanker aircraft, to assist Russian and Chinese forces operating in the Pacific.
Dmitry Stefanovich, a Russian Defense Analyst noted after the first Russia-China joint air patrol in July 2019 that if the two air forces indeed achieve a level of interoperability where they develop joint air refueling capability, its impact on the regional strategic balance could be significant.
Also, on previous occasions of such joint patrols, Russian sources have indicated that one of the objectives is to collect valuable military data by deliberately provoking responses from regional powers such as South Korea and Japan, which is also known as ‘cracking the hedgehog’ in Russian military jargon.
So, the Russian reconnaissance aircraft spotted by the Japanese military could be gathering information on the fighters scrambled by Japan and maybe even South Korea in response to the Chinese and Russian warplanes entering their respective air identification zone.
Therefore, it could be said that the joint military actions by Russia and China are most probably aimed at challenging the US-led alliances in the Asia Pacific region to shift the strategic balance in their favor, since by acting individually, neither could hope to undermine the strong US presence in the Pacific.