KEY POINTS

  • The JASDF scrambled fighter jets all three times to monitor the drones
  • A PLA patrol plane and an intelligence aircraft accompanied the drones 
  • China has been focusing on developing sophisticated UAVs over the last few years

The Japan Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) had to scramble fighter jets three times over the week to monitor Chinese drones that flew over the East China Sea and the strategic Miyako Strait that opens to the Philippine Sea and the broader Western Pacific Ocean. 

A People's Liberation Army Tengoen TB-001 Scorpion medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) drone flew into the East China Sea northwest of Okinawa Tuesday, prompting JASDF to send fighters to investigate its activities, reported The Drive.

A PLA Harbin BZK-005 MALE drone then flew a sortie back and forth through the Miyako Strait Wednesday, followed by another TB-001 through Miyako Strait, which lies southwest of the island of Okinawa, on Thursday. 

According to the Japanese officials, one Shaanxi Y-8Q maritime patrol plane and one Shaanxi Y-9JB electronic intelligence aircraft accompanied the drones on their flights the last two days. 

This comes as a testament to PLA's growing unmanned aircraft capabilities and its focus on deploying increasingly sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles.

Last year, the PLA Central Theatre Command released images of the BZK-005 MALE drone specifically configured for wide-area intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.

Capable of flying continuously for up to 40 hours, the standard BZK-005 has a single pusher propeller, a pair of swept main wings, and a twin-boom tail configuration. The PLA also has an armed variant, with a revised center fuselage, known as the BZK-005C

The TB-001 Scorpion is also a long-endurance drone with a twin-boom tail and a pair of engines, each driving a single propeller, one on either side of its central fuselage under its straight, high-mounted main wing. 

The report adds that this type was designed as an armed drone capable of carrying various stores, though it also has a sensor turret underneath its central fuselage. However, the pictures released by JASDF do not show them carrying anything under their wings, except for additional sensor systems, possibly a radar or electronic intelligence gathering pod.

According to The Diplomat, by developing various high-end UAVs, the PLA is seeking to close the technological and capability gap with other leading military powers such as the United State. 

For the last many years, Japan has been facing repeated intrusions from PLA, both via air and water. While the territorial conflict over the Senkaku Islands has stoked tension in the region, Japan has repeatedly complained about Chinese warplanes intruding into its airspace. 

The number of scrambles against airspace violations has been increasing rapidly over the past decade, especially in the southwest air zone, said a report by CNN that quoted a Japanese fighter pilot.

Chinese fighter jet over the East China Sea File image of a Chinese SU-27 fighter jet over the East China Sea, released by the Defense Ministry of Japan. Photo: Reuters/Defense Ministry of Japan