5 Chinese Weapons of War Japan Should Fear

Why Tokyo should be concerned over Beijing's rising military might. 

Over the last several years Sino-Japanese relations have reached low after new low—all thanks to claims and counterclaims over the Senkaku islands (China refers to them as the Diaoyu islands). The relationship between the two countries, which had been tepid at best—quickly cooled beginning in 2010 as both sides jockeyed for position over the disputed islands.

Japan’s Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union, threatened the country primarily in the north with submarines, bombers, fighters, and a theoretical invasion by sea. China is a different sort of strategic threat to Japan, being most active in the more southern East China Sea, with its military reach extending to the Senkaku and Ryukyu Islands as well as the Japanese mainland.

The challenge posed by the People’s Liberation Army has shaken a complacent Japanese government, which had left its national security establishment virtually unchanged since the 1980s. A national security council similar to that in the United States has been formed, secrecy laws have been passed and Japan’s defenses are shifting southward. Here are a five weapon systems that Tokyo should worry about as tensions with Beijing continue to simmer:

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J-20 Stealth Fighter:

Japan lost control of her airspace during the Second World War to devastating effect. The result: as many as 900,000 people killed in aerial bombing raids. Since then, Japan has invested in only the best American fighters.

Unfortunately, American refusal to sell the F-22 Raptor overseas and the aging of the F-15J fighter is set to create a window of vulnerability. Even worse news for Japan, China is developing something that could push through Tokyo’s airspace: the J-20 fighter.

China’s first 5th generation fighter, the J-20 is a large, delta-winged aircraft with a long, broad fuselage ending in two turbofan engines. The aircraft is in advanced stages of development. There are six demonstrators flying, with the last two spotted in November and December of last year. The U.S. Air Force estimates the aircraft will become operational some time between 2017 and 2019.

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The J-20 is a long-range combat aircraft with a stealthy profile. The aircraft’s sensor suite will probably include a AESA phased array radar and an electro-optical targeting system. These will provide targeting for weapons carried in the plane’s two large internal weapons bays. Conceivable payloads include air-to-air, land attack or anti-ship missiles.

Nobody really knows what role the J-20 will be assigned. The aircraft’s large frame points to an air superiority or multi-role fighter with a large payload and long range. Like the F-15 Eagle, it could become both. The most obvious role for the J-20 is as a fighter to directly challenge the F-15J. The J-20’s stealthy capabilities and advanced avionics could give Chinese pilots a decisive edge.

China could also use the J-20 to intercept Japanese support aircraft. Japan has few bases in the area capable of supporting the Senkakus. In the event Naha Air Base on Okinawa were knocked out, Japanese fighters would have to fly from the southern island of Kyushu. In either case, Japanese tankers would be critical toward keeping.

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S-400 Surface to Air Missile System:

According to reports, China seems set to purchase (or is very close to purchasing—reports on this vary) six battalions of S-400s. Each S-400 battalion consists of a command post, radar systems and twelve launch vehicles, each with four 40N6 missiles.

The S-400 is a highly sophisticated system and would be a boon to Beijing's air-defense capabilities. The radar system can track up to one hundred targets at a time and engage twelve simultaneously. It also has some limited capability to detect stealth aircraft.

The 40N6 missile has a range of 400 kilometers. Deployed on China’s coastline, it brings all of Taiwan’s airspace into range. Similarly and of particular concern to the Japanese, it will also be able to put the Senkaku Islands under range.

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Although the Senkakus will be at the outer edge of the S-400’s engagement envelope, this is still a serious problem for Japan. Japan regularly patrols the Senkaku Islands by air, with both P-3C Orion maritime patrol planes and F-15J fighters based at Okinawa.

A very possible purchase and later deployment of S-400s near the Senkaku Islands would create difficulties for Japan in both peace and war. In peacetime, it could mean scaling back patrols over the tiny islands by slower, less maneuverable aircraft, such as the P-3C. In the event of an incident, such aircraft could be caught within range of the S-400 and would have little chance of survival.

Likewise, in wartime the S-400 could help China maintain air superiority over the islands. China has a limited number of aerial refueling tankers, and in a conflict might not be able to provide round-the-clock combat air patrols over the islands.