As the Asia-Pacific Region is increasingly becoming a centre of world politics and economics, gravitational pull inside the Asia-Pacific region is moving to Northeast Asia, where the interests of great powers – China, Japan, the USA, and Russia – meet and clash.
Japan‘s Air Force
Should Beijing use its nuclear weapons (despite the declaration never to use them against non-nuclear states), the USA’s positive guarantees to Japan will kick in.
Russia would definitely not support China with a strike on US territory: our strategic partnership does not envisage it. We shall therefore leave China’s nuclear potential “out of the picture”.
Japan has a strong air and naval base on Okinawa, which puts is in an advantageous position since it could focus its main forces and set up a bridgehead on the island, effectively turning it into “an unsinkable aircraft carrier”.
Furthermore, Okinawa is reliably protected from air strikes (including cruise missile strikes) by Patriot missile systems, fighters and naval air defence systems.
Japan’s tactical aviation does not have mid-air refuelling capability, but due to short fly-in times from Okinawa, it is capable of ensuring practically non-stop patrolling and destruction of sea and air targets.
It would be difficult to consider massive strikes by the Japanese Air Force against ground targets in mainland China since missions like that are possible only with small payloads in order to hit point targets.
The possibility of an assault landing on the Senkaku Islands should be ruled out too: they are too small and it would be extremely hard to ensure a safe landing there.
Japan could, without any detriment to the defence of its main territory, concentrate a third of its Air Force fleet (some 100 aircraft) in the conflict zone.
The bulk of its Air Force consists of modern aircraft capable of hitting sea targets with bombs and guided missiles without entering the impact zone of the majority of Chinese naval air defence systems, as well as of destroying air targets at a considerable distance. Tokyo also has AWACS aircraft and electronic warfare assets, which makes it considerably easier for it to control the situation in the air and at sea and to vector its air groups, and may interfere with the operation of Chinese electronic systems.
China could concentrate most of its weapons and means of support near the cities of Fuzhou, Taizhou, and Ningbo.
China‘s Air Force
There is no reliable data as regards to what extent Chinese radars control the country’s airspace, however in the event of a conflict radar capability would of course be stepped up in hub areas. The same could be said about ground-based air defence systems.
Given the country’s large size, it would be difficult to arrange a large-scale relocation of military hardware and arms. Also, China would not be able to afford to leave the border with its “northern neighbour”, Russia, completely unprotected, or to weaken “the Indian section” of its border either. The technical training and experience of Chinese pilots are also a matter of some concern, so it is unlikely that the fleet of warplanes in action at first will more than 15 per cent (some 20 aircraft).
Once again, there is likely to be a clash between “Soviets” and “Yanks” in the sky, as China will certainly try and test its multipurpose fighters of the Su-27 generation (both Russian and Chinese-made).
In terms of their flight characteristics, these aircraft are superior to the enemy’s fighters and are good at hitting sea and air targets.
Although for Chinese aircraft, the distance from their airfields to the Senkaku Islands will be somewhat longer than for Japanese aircraft, technically they still would be able to maintain permanent presence in the disputed area. However, due to its geographic location, it would be easier for Japan to control Chinese aircraft routes over the East China Sea from sea and from air than it would be for China to monitor Japanese aircraft movement to and from Okinawa.
The Air Force of the People’s Liberation Army of China has very few AWACS aircraft.
It does not have real experience of vectoring and guiding aircraft, or practical experience of joint action with naval forces.
Therefore in the air, the Chinese will rely most of all on the “effect of scale”, and “the battle for Senkaku” for the Chinese Air Force will at first result in considerable losses.
Having said that, China will be able to compensate for those losses by deploying military units from other parts of the country and, in future, by actively manufacturing new hardware (100 new aircraft every year).