The Crowded Skies
It's getting a little crowded in China's recently-declared air defense intercept zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea.
Beijing claims its has scrambled fighters into the area, after the U.S., Japan and South Korea flew military aircraft through the zone, which lies between the northern tip of Taiwan and the southern coast of Japan's home islands. Two USAF B-52 bombers transited the area last week, followed by sorties from Japanese F-15s and P-3s, along with military jets from South Korea.
More flights will likely follow; American intelligence-collection aircraft (RC-135s and EP-3s) routinely operate in the area, and Washington and its allies are determined to exercise their freedom of navigation rights through what (was) unrestricted, international airspace just two weeks ago.
In response, the PRC has scrambled its most advanced fighters, the indigenous J-10 and the Russian-designed SU-30MKK, which reportedly "shadowed" U.S., Japanese and South Korean aircraft that flew through the air defense zone.
Of course, military aircraft aren't the only ones operating in the area. Dozens of commercial flights pass through the area each day and for now, U.S. carriers are complying with Beijing's demand that they file flight plans in advance, and "accept" instructions from Chinese controllers while airlines from Japan and South Korea are not. With the potential for miscalculation growing, the U.S. airlines want to ensure their jets are not targeted inadvertently. Given the middling response (to date) from the Obama Administration, airline execs probably felt they had no other choice. By comparison, Japanese and ROK carriers are refusing to buckle to Beijing's pressure and it would be nice if their American counterparts showed a little solidarity.
According to various media reports, Japan has dispatched its E-767 AWACS to monitor activity in the air defense zone (and control F-15s patrolling in the area), and China's KJ-2000 AWACS has been active in the area as well. It's also a safe bet that American E-3s from Kadena AB, Okinawa are on station, along with the afore-mentioned RC-135s and EP-3s.
Having AWACS and SIGINT aircraft in the area improves situational awareness immeasurably and providing that type of coverage has become mandatory for most air operations. It's a pretty safe bet that while the the B-52s were transiting the ADIZ, they received real-time updates on PRC air and emitter activity from Kadena-based E-3s and RC-135s, or an EP-3 based out of Japan. Having worked with these platforms on numerous occasions, I can testify to the abilities of USAF and USN crews to create a "melded" air picture, blending radar, voice and eletronic intelligence data into a comprehensive product for tactical customers and operational commanders.
It's also worth noting that the United States has an F-15 wing at Kadena, along with an F-16 wing at Misawa AB, Navy fighter jets at other locations in Japan and additional assets (F-22s, tankers and heavy bombers) that rotate to the region on a regular basis. Given those assets, it's logical to ask why the U.S, acting in concert with its allies, doesn't mount a more forceful response to Beijing's provocation. No one is talking about engaging PRC aircraft, but the Americans, Japanese, and South Koreans could maintain "barrier" combat air patrols (BARCAPs) along the western reaches of the ADIZ. That would send a clear message to China that its expanded ADIZ is illegitimate and will not be tolerated.
Yes, that type of operation would be a major undertaking, but there's no reason the U.S., Japan and South Korea couldn't implement--and sustain--the effort for a period of months. All operate modern air and naval forces, with state-of-the-art communications and command-and-control capabilities. During the 1990s, Washington and its allies maintained continuous no-fly zones over Bosnia and Iraq for a period of years. Compared to that effort, BARCAPS over the East China Sea would require fewer aircraft, and the cost could be shared more equally.
It would also expose potential weaknesses in Beijing's growing military machine. The PRC has only a handful of AWACS aircraft and airborne SIGINT platforms, placing a limit on potential operations, particularly at greater distances from the Chinese coast. Beijing is also restricted in its airborne tanker capabilities, forcing them to patrol closer to shore, or limit on-station time for their fighters.
But there are (apparently) no plans for a more muscular airpower display in the Chinese ADIZ. Team Obama doesn't want to ruffle Beijing's feathers, since they are a key trading partner and a major buyer of U.S. debt. There's also the matter of paying for an extended military operation; with the bureaucrats looking to shut down stateside military commissaries (to save $1 billion a year), Pentagon accountants are terrified at the potential bill for a long-term air mission in the Far East (never mind that Tokyo and Seoul, the primary beneficiaries of the action, could foot much of the bill).
There are also concerns about aging American aircraft. Those F-15s at Kadena are getting long in the tooth (some pilots are now flying Eagles once operated by their fathers, more than 20 years ago) and maintenance costs are piling up. By some estimates, ground crews spend three times as many hours prepping an F-15 for a single sortie, and there are concerns that again jets might suffer another catastrophic structural failure, like the one in 2007 that grounded the entire F-15 fleet for several months.
Instead, Vice President Joe Biden is being dispatched to Asia for talks with our allies. That should produce more diplomatic rhetoric, but little in the way of action. To be fair, the Obama Administration (and our allies in the Far East) did the right thing in challenging China's expanded ADIZ. But it's also very likely that Beijing will attempt similar gambits in the future, trying to expand its sphere of influence in the region, and gain control of vital natural resources. At some point, the U.S. must fashion a tougher response that a few military flights across disputed airspace, even when dealing with a superpower, vice regional irritants like the old Serbian regime and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.