Japanese fighter pilots hear sirens more than twice a day, hover from seats in a room, run to their streams and scream in the air, ready to pick up potentially unidentified intrusion into Japanese airspace.
In the last fiscal year ending in March, it happened 947 times to the Japanese Air Defense Force (JASDF) 947 times. The culprits in most of these cases were aircraft from the Chinese People’s Liberation Air Force (PLAAF).
And Shirota says the number of potential incursions is growing.
“The number of airspace violations has been increasing rapidly over the last decade – especially in the southwest air zone,” Shirota said in an exclusive interview with CNN. “Approximately 70% of the operations carried out by the Japanese SDF are carried out in this area every year.”;
In March, the Japanese Ministry of Defense issued a map showing the flight routes of Chinese and Russian planes stopped by Japanese fighter pilots. Chinese flight routes are shown in red. Due to its density, East China, the part of the Pacific Ocean between China and Japan’s southern islands, looks like the Red Sea.
Chinese flights do not violate international law. According to the Japanese Ministry of Defense, out of 675 Japanese fighters fighting after Chinese planes in the last fiscal year, Chinese planes never flew within the internationally recognized 12-mile territorial zone.
And even then, China claims that the presence of its forces in the Senkakus / Diaoyu island chain is within its sovereign rights.
“Diaoyu Island and its associated islands are an integral part of China. China is determined to protect our territorial sovereignty, “said Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in June.
The Chinese Foreign and Defense Ministries did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment on this particular Japanese report.
However, Japan still claims that Chinese aircraft often intervene in its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), which can vary from location to location.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration defines ADIZ as “a designated area of airspace over land or water in which a country requires the immediate and positive identification, location, and control of aircraft operations in the interest of the country’s national security.”
Shirota, the 40-year-old commander of the 204th Tactical Fighter Squadron JASDF at Naha Air Base in Okinawa, has his pilots readily available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to do so only.
“The self-defense air force is the only entity capable of protecting Japanese territory and airspace,” he says.
And although there have been no shooting incidents with Chinese planes, it’s always a tense job, says Shirota.
“We are still waiting on the guard,” says the Japanese pilot. “The same thing is said when we are in the sky. We still maintain motivation at a high level.
“Because we never know what we’re going to face when we go up in the sky. We could see them leave (Chinese planes), or we could face it, “he says.
The readiness of Japanese pilots is remarkable when you consider their burden. No Western air force is close to Japan in how many times their fighters have hovered against potentially enemy aircraft.
Last year, the air force of the 27 European members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) flew less than half the interception than Japan.
“I can tell you that during the 12 months of 2019, NATO jets reached the sky approximately 430 times to intercept or visually identify unidentified aircraft that flew either in, near, or near NATO airspace,” Lt. Col. Michael Wawrzyniak, chief public affairs officer for Allied Air Command Germany, told CNN.
Japan has not seen such a respite. In the same time frame of 2007 as NORAD, Japan also mixed its fighters more than 200 times in the slowest year of 2009.
Analyst Peter Layton, a former pilot of the Royal Australian Air Force who now works at the Griffith Asia Institute, is convinced that the pressure China is putting on Japan is part of a larger plan.
“I think China wants to keep JASDF off balance and reactive, wear out its aircraft and crews, get training and keep up the pressure on who owns the disputed islands,” Layton told CNN.
“The JASDF fleet of approximately 215 F-15J aircraft carries an onslaught of battles,” he wrote.
“Since 2016, JASDF has often launched four aircraft for each battle.
“These daily battles are gradually carrying the F-15J fleet. He fears that China has about six times more fighters than JASDF, and could further expand the attacks whenever it deems appropriate. The life of the Japanese F-15J fleet is now almost a decision that lies in China, “Layton said.
Layton told CNN that Tokyo could not back down.
“The Japanese believe that they must always react in order to be interpreted differently than less engaged in territorial ownership,” he said.
And Japan is stepping up its responses to possible Chinese threats.
A Defense Department official said Japanese fighters were now mixing as soon as Chinese planes took off from their mainland bases within range of Senkaku. Previously, they waited until Chinese planes were targeting Japanese airspace.
In its White Paper on Defense by 2020, published this month, Tokyo noted the pressure from Beijing around Senkak.
“China has consistently made unilateral attempts to change the status quo by coercion in the maritime area around the Senkaku Islands, leading to serious concerns,” she said.
“In recent years, the Chinese navy and air force have expanded and intensified their activities in the surrounding marine areas and airspace of Japan, and there are cases where there has been a unilateral escalation of activities,” the White Paper said.
But the F-3 is several years away from the assembly line, and the F-35 will not come in such numbers that would bring a great advantage in China.
The burden will therefore fall on Shirot and his comrades-in-arms.
“Japan is surrounded by the sea. The invasion comes from either the ocean or the sky. If the invasion comes from the air, it will all happen very quickly,” he says.
“Securing air defenses is directly linked to protecting Japan, the lives and property of the Japanese,” says Shirota. “I wholeheartedly perform my role as an air defense officer with a strong will to protect Japan.”