Hyakuri Air Base: Warplanes bearing the bright red Rising Sun logo roared overhead on Sunday as Japan held a once-every-three-years display to showcase one of the best air forces in Asia. The only problem — most of its fighters were grounded.
Underscoring Japan`s uphill battle in an increasingly heated race to control the skies over Asia, the air review came just a week after the country`s entire F-15 fleet was ordered into its hangers for safety checks following a midair accident, the second such order in three months.
But in an effort to counterbalance big strides by China and Russia toward deploying new stealthy aircraft, Japan`s Air Self-Defence Forces are about to get a multibillion dollar overhaul.
For Sunday`s review, the F-15s — the workhorse of Japan`s air defences — were relegated to ground displays, either parked on the runway or allowed to taxi but not take off. Last weekend, an empty fuel tank burst and detached from a F-15 on a training flight, causing the grounding order. In July, an F-15 flying out of Okinawa crashed into the ocean. The pilot is listed as missing and presumed dead.
The accidents reinforced what military planners already knew: Japan`s aging air force has seen better days. But after years of delays and budget battles, Japan is expected to announce by the end of December a new fighter deal that will likely shape Asian air security for decades to come.
"The JASDF is on the edge of becoming a major tool of power projection," said Michael Auslin, a Japan security expert with the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, DC-based think tank. "With its fighter selection process, it will signal whether it intends to be qualitatively competitive with leading air forces around the region over the next generation."
Japan — with 362 fighter jets, mostly F-15s, F-4s and F-2s — is already one of the top air powers in the region.
But planners have long been concerned by the increasing age and expense of maintaining the fleet — along with this country`s ability to match the improving air capabilities of neighbouring Russia and China. Japan has been using the F-15 as its centrepiece fighter since the early 1980s, though they have been updated over the years. Japan flies about 200 of the planes.
Tokyo`s first choice was the United States` stealthy F-22 Raptor, which can cruise at supersonic speeds and is hailed by many aviation experts as the most advanced fighter in the skies. Japan is the only country where the F-22 is regularly deployed overseas, having done several rotations to the US Kadena Air Base on the southern island of Okinawa.
Acquiring the F-22 would have been a quantum leap for Japan.
Because of its sensitive technology, the US Congress has opposed selling the F-22 abroad. Budget restraints in the United States have further forced Washington to drastically reduce its own orders for the pricey plane, whose future is now cloudy.
With the F-22 out of the picture, Japan has set its sights on three jets as its next mainstay fighter — the Lockheed F-35, Boeing`s F/A-18 Super Hornet and the Eurofighter Typhoon. The hotly contested deal for more than 40 "F-X," or next generation, planes is worth upwards of USD 8 billion. The first planes are expected to begin arriving in 2016.
Japan is likely to go with one of the American options.
Washington is Tokyo`s main ally. Roughly 50,000 US troops are stationed in Japan under a security pact. Japan`s air forces must work closely with their American counterparts, and using the same or similar equipment makes that easier.
Japan`s main concerns are China and Russia — with whom it has longstanding territorial disputes — along with the threat of North Korean ballistic missiles.
China, whose military has been growing more capable and assertive in the region, recently rolled out its next-generation stealth fighter, the much-touted Chengdu J-20. Though that fighter may be years away from actual operations, it is seen as a rival to the F-22 and far superior to what Japan now has.
Russia, which is also making advances in its stealth capabilities, sent two strategic bombers on a mission to circumnavigate the Japanese islands last month — a move seen as a test of the new government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, which had just been launched six days before.
"With the provocative actions of North Korea, and the rapid growth of China`s military, along with its increased activity in nearby waters, the security situation around our country is becoming murkier," Noda said in a speech at the air review. "We must ask you to tighten the strings on your samurai helmets."
The growing military activity around Japan has been reflected in a sharp increase in emergency "scrambles" by Japanese fighters to respond to airspace violations. Scramble orders were issued 386 times last year — up nearly 25 percent, according to the Defence Ministry. Virtually all were Chinese or Russian incursions.
Such challenges have given the overhaul plan a boost, despite Japan`s steadily declining defence budget over the past decade — a sharp contrast to China`s double-digit growth.
They have also pushed Tokyo closer to Washington.
Last year, Japan agreed to allow tankers acquired in 2008 to conduct midair refuelling of US warplanes. The pact only provides for refuelling during exercises, but experts say it a step toward bolstering the capability of both countries to jointly respond to regional threats.