Russian bomber and spy jets to flying in from the north and Chinese fighters penetrating from the south placed Japan under siege for most of 2014, forcing Japanese Air Self Defense Force fighter jets to scramble more frequently than at the height of the Cold War, the country’s defense ministry said Tuesday.
Japan keeps statistics on fighter jet scrambles beginning at the end of March, and for 2014 that nine-month period saw Japanese fighter jets take to the skies to intercept Russian or Chinese jets an astonishing 744 times. That was an increase of nearly one-third over the previous year’s total for the equivalent period.
“With only three quarters of data available, we can’t yet say whether it will be a record year,” a spokesperson for the Japan Defense Ministry cautioned.
But if the rate of Russian and Chinese jets buzzing Japan remains the same as for the previous nine months, by the end of March this year, the 12-month total will top 944 incidents in which Japan was forced into aerial showdowns with its Chinese and Russian foes.
Exceeding 944 scrambles would mean that the March 2014 to March 2015 period saw more confrontations in the sky over Japan than in any year since 1984 — the height of the Cold War.
Russia and Japan have never resolved a decades-long territorial dispute over a four-island archipelago called the Kuril Islands by Russia, but known in Japan as the Northern Territories.
Each country claims the islands as its own — and has for at least the past 60 years.
Russian was actually slightly behind China in the nine-months from March to the end of 2014, when it came to deploying jets over Japan’s air space, with 369 incidents that forced Japan to scramble its own jets to fend off the Russian bombers and intelligence gathering planes.
To the south, where Japan claims another group of islands known in Japan as Senkaku, but in China — which also claims the archipelago — as the Diaoyu Islands, Chinese jets flew 371 missions that provoked a response from Japan’s own fighter jets.
Tensions between Japan and Russia have run high over the islands in the East China Sea over the past two years, with anti-Japanese marches in Chinese streets protesting Japan’s claim over the islands.
China created its own air defense zone over the islands, even though Japan says that the same air space is its own air defense zone.
Since the end of the Cold War, Japan has scrambled fighter jets only about 150 times in any typical year. But with increased Russian militarization and strained relations with the Chinese, Japan finds itself back in Cold War territory when it comes to defending its skies.