Russian jets flying perilously close to Japan airspace forced Japanese fighters to take to the skies 533 times over the past six months — a number up from 308 in the same time period a year earlier. Now Japan is trying to figure out why the Russian military jets have made Japan a target.
"We don't know the reason for the increased air activity," an official with the Japan Self Defense Forces told Reuters news service. "That's something for the Russians to answer."
The official declined to have his name used by the news agency.
Japan and Russia have been locked in a territorial cold war over four northern islands since the end of World War II. Both Japan and Russia claim the islands as their own. But there have been no new developments recently in the mostly diplomatic struggle over the islands. The island dispute does not appear to present a reason for the influx of Russian jets zooming toward Japan airspace.
Reuters tried to get an answer from the Russian Defense Ministry, but no one there would take a call from the news organization regarding the jets.
The 533 times that Japan had to scramble its own aircraft to intercept Russian jets in the first six months of 2014 was the highest total since 2003. And before that year, Japan did not even publicize the number of times its pilots fended off Russian jets.
So the number of jet interceptions is the highest ever recorded. A high number of the Russian jets have focused on a single area in the Sea of Japan that lies near the halfway point between Japan and North Korea.
The military information publication Jane's Defense Weekly believes that the Russian jets in that area have been spying on the installation of a new missile defense radar system near that area. Made by U.S. defense manufacturer Raytheon, the radar system is designed to sound an early warning in the case of a North Korean ballistic missile attack against Japan.
"The reason they come to us is to check our capabilities," another Japan defense official told Jane's. The official said he believed the Russian jets were dispatched to "send a message," not only to Japan but perhaps more importantly to its closest ally, the United States.
Some of the Japanese fighters were sent into the skies to ward off not Russian jets, but Chinese aircraft.
The latest approach by Russian jets happened on October 6, when Russia sent an Su-24 supersonic bomber jet skimming the Japanese coastline. But the jet did not penetrate Japan airspace.