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Growing Chinese concerns over Japan-India Air Combat Exercise
For China, the Veer Guardian 2023 exercise comes as an ominous portent for the future.
On 16 January, Japan and India launched their second Joint Air Defense Exercise named “Veer Guardian 2023” at Hyakuri Air Base, near Tokyo in Japan. Four Sukhoi-30MKI fighters from the Indian Air Force (IAF) and Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s (JASDF) eight F-2 and F-15 fighters are participating in the fortnight-long drill. The exercise aims to conduct multi-domain air combat operations in a complex environment and deepen their mutual operational understanding while fostering closer defence cooperation.
The Chinese media has widely covered the joint exercise, particularly in the Chinese language ones. The extent of coverage is unusual as Chinese commentators have frequently belittled the IAF’s inventory and operational capabilities. A deeper study into the Chinese discourse unveils a subdued panic over the increasing military collaboration between Japan and India under US guidance in the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, Japan’s attempt to familiarise itself with the Sukhoi-30 series fighter aircraft through this drill increases uncertainty for the Chinese Air Force in the region.
"A deeper study into the Chinese discourse unveils a subdued panic over the increasing military collaboration between Japan and India under US guidance in the Indo-Pacific."
The Joint Drill
The fighter aircraft participating in the exercise brings unique capabilities. Japan’s F-2 fighters are a variant of the US-produced F-16 aircraft. Chinese experts believe that the IAF’s exercise against the F-2 aircraft will help them further understand the F-16 aircraft’s capabilities and combat manoeuvrability which they would use against Pakistan. However, this argument is incorrect as Indian pilots have already exercised with F-16 fighters in different settings with multiple air forces, thus there is not much to learn. Similarly, Indian Sukhoi-30MKIs have frequently exercised with the US Air Force’s F-15 aircraft and therefore, the Japanese F-15 presents a familiar competition.
Japan, however, intends to benefit significantly from this air drill. This is the first time JASDF pilots are simulating air combat operations with a Sukhoi-30 aircraft and therefore, their heightened curiosity is obvious. The JASDF aims to understand Sukhoi’s combat behaviour, which may help them against Chinese and Russian Sukhoi series fighters in the future. China has nearly 700 Sukhoi-27 and Sukhoi-30 variants in its inventory, both produced in Russia and China. The Sukhoi fighters are the Chinese Air Force’s backbone and are regularly used in air patrols around China’s periphery.
Chinese experts have, however, argued that the exercise is political in nature and has only limited military value. Both Japan and India have sent their fourth-generation fighter jets to the exercise and not their latest F-35 or Rafale aircraft. This reflects a lack of mutual strategic trust among them. Moreover, Indian aircraft took two transit stops in Thailand and the Philippines to cover 6,000 kilometers distance to Japan, despite having a 3,500-kilometres ferry range. Thus, Chinese commentators argue that Indian Sukhoi-30MKIs are weak in strategic manoeuvring and remain similar to the Russian Sukhoi-30 SM variant while Chinese ones are far more advanced. These arguments, however, tend to fall flat on closer examination.
"Chinese experts believe that the IAF’s exercise against the F-2 aircraft will help them further understand the F-16 aircraft’s capabilities and combat manoeuvrability which they would use against Pakistan."
One, all Chinese Sukhoi fighters except the Sukhoi-35 use the same AL-31 series engines therefore, their flying parameters are similar. Second, in terms of aerodynamics, weight category, weapon-carrying capabilities and combat range, Chinese Sukhoi-27 and Sukhoi-30s are inferior to the Indian variant. Third, Indian Sukhoi-30MKIs carry Western and Israeli avionics and weapons such as Litening targeting pods, Elbit’s Head Up Display, Tahles instrumentation and Derby missiles. Their engines are equipped with thrust vector control features. Compared to that, Chinese Sukhois mostly carry Chinese equipment and weapons. Based on the experience of Myanmar’s, Bangladesh’s, and Pakistan’s militaries with Chinese electronics, weapons and combat platforms, these fighters do not inspire much confidence.
As expected, Japan is curious to understand Sukhoi-30MKI’s manoeuvrability, cruising range, fuel consumption data, and maintenance turnaround time. The two-week simulation exercise is adequate for the JASDF pilots to achieve a comprehensive assessment of the Indian fighter aircraft. In addition, Japan’s ground-based radars can obtain Sukhoi’s RCS data and combat manoeuvre details at different angles and flight states. These details will help Japanese pilots against Chinese Sukhois, especially their J-16 variant.
China believes that its fighter aircraft inventory of J-10, J-20, and J-16 is far superior and in large quantity, allowing it to dominate the air combat scene in East Asia. The J-20 aircraft with its stealth capabilities and the J-16 aircraft with its active phased array radar and a lethal combination of short and ultra-long-range weapons will outperform any competition from Asian powers in the Indo-Pacific. China can also avoid sending Sukhois to the Japanese front and send J-20 and J-10 aircraft instead, about which Japanese fighters have no experience.
"The J-20 aircraft with its stealth capabilities and the J-16 aircraft with its active phased array radar and a lethal combination of short and ultra-long-range weapons will outperform any competition from Asian powers in the Indo-Pacific."
Moreover, the same fighter can behave differently if flown by a Chinese pilot as their training and flight experiences differ. The Chinese air combat command system also works differently and therefore, the Japanese experience cannot be completely utilised against Chinese fighter patrols.
Japan-India collusion against China
China is, however, concerned over Japan-India collusion against it across domains. The Chinese government believes that Japan is exaggerating the “China Threat Theory”, evident in Japan’s recently published National Security Strategy (NSS). The NSS positions China as Japan’s biggest challenge ever seen and therefore, recommends a counter-strike capability by 2027. Japan’s defense budget growth during 2011-2020 has been only 2.4 percent compared to China’s 76 percent and it has forced Japan to look for alliances to create a power balance in the Indo-Pacific.
Therefore, Japan has been assiduously courting allies including the US, Germany, the UK, Australia and India, among others. It has conducted multiple military exercises with them and increased its defence budget to acquire long-range offensive weapons. Japan has also aimed to introduce NATO forces in the Asia-Pacific theatre through the “Reciprocal Access Agreements” that it has entered into with the UK, France, and Australia. As expected, Chinese experts argue that these steps may lead Japan to a resurgence of its militarist past.
Furthermore, Japan and India have had a reciprocal access agreement in place since 2020. In addition, they have regularly been conducting joint military exercises in naval, ground and now, even in air domains. Japanese experts openly seek to create a two-front military challenge to China in a potential conflict in the Indo-Pacific. A stronger India poses a major threat to China’s west while Japan in the east remains a major threat. Together, India and Japan can bring a paradigmatic shift in the region’s security. As expected, China has deployed substantially on its western border and remains wary of any potential cooperation between Japan, India, and the United States (US) against it.
"Japan’s defense budget growth during 2011-2020 has been only 2.4 percent compared to China’s 76 percent and it has forced Japan to look for alliances to create a power balance in the Indo-Pacific."
Moreover, Indian and Japanese forces can build their skill sets through regular exercises with the US, NATO, and Australian forces. China does not have the same luxury as its defence partnership is limited to countries namely Russia and Pakistan. Russian Air Force’s yawning performance in Ukraine does not inspire much confidence in Beijing. China has tried to cover this gap by hiring retired military pilots from Australia, the United Kingdom (UK) and other Western countries. However, even that route has come into trouble lately, exacerbating China’s paranoia.
For India, which has faced a three-year-long standoff with China on its border, these exercises present a rare opportunity to gain experience over the East China Sea. In addition, Indian Sukhoi-30MKIs have already conducted joint air combat trainings with the US and Australian air forces. Therefore, the joint drill with Japan can become a stepping stone to future quadrilateral air exercises. Furthermore, Indian pilots will learn crucial aerial combat over sea skills where Japan has substantial tactical and operational experience.
In sum, the Japan-India joint air drill will impart crucial combat experience to both air forces. It will also further Japan’s approach to involve India deeper in the East Asian security architecture. However, for China, the air drill comes as an ominous portent for the future.
Dr Atul Kumar (Griffith Asia Institute)
17 February 2023