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The center object in this satellite photo is believed to be a model of an advanced-radar-equipped plane of Japan's Self-Defense Forces. (Photo by 2022Planet Labs PBC)
Indo-Pacific

Satellite photos suggest China training to attack Japan's aircraft

Exclusive: SDF's early warning system seen as target in case of Taiwan contingency

Nikkei staff writers | China

TOKYO -- China has set up an object that appears to be modeled on an airborne warning and control system (AWACS) plane used by the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) in a desert area of Xinjiang, Nikkei has learned after analyzing satellite photographs with experts.

The object could be used by the Chinese military as a dummy target for training to attack SDF aircraft with missiles, a former senior SDF official pointed out.

The object is believed to be modeled on the JASDF's E-767 aircraft. Thomas Shugart, adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) said, "I looked around to see what AWACS is of that size and shape and has two engines, and there is one: the E-767, which is operated only by the Japan Air Self-Defense Force."

The E-767 is manufactured by U.S.-based Boeing, and the four stationed at Hamamatsu Air Base are the only ones operating worldwide, according to the Japanese Ministry of Defense. It flies at a high altitude at more than 800 km per hour, using its back-mounted radar to detect distant aircraft and missiles that cannot be captured by ground-based radar. It has a range of 9,000 km and can monitor an extensive area for a prolonged period of time.

An apparent mock-up, left, of an AWACS plane is seen in Xinjiang desert (Photo by 2022Planet Labs PBC). An E-767, right, at Hamamatsu Air Base in Japan. (Source photo by Google Earth)

The location photographed is thought to be a special area controlled by the Chinese military.

The aircraft is also called the "control tower of the sky," because it has control functions that enable friendly fighters to intercept enemy aircraft. During a contingency, it would be responsible for searching for enemy military movements in airspace away from combat zones. "If we lost the E-767s during a Taiwan contingency, Japan would lose its ability to monitor the Nansei Islands," said Kiyofumi Iwata, a former chief of staff of the Ground Self-Defense Force.

With its extensive surveillance capabilities, the E-767 is difficult to shoot down during flight. It is considered most vulnerable to attack when it is parked on the ground. Military drills use same-shape targets to increase missile accuracy. Yoji Koda, former commander in chief of Japan's Self Defense Fleet, said, the object "was probably built to check the error of missile impact" to simulate attacking E-767s.

The wider area around the object believed to be a model E-767. (Photo by 2022Planet Labs PBC)

Regarding the object seen in the satellite photographs, Iwata said, "Both the Japanese and U.S. governments are probably aware of it. China is deliberately showing it to us as a threat in case something were to happen."

The location was pinpointed with the assistance of Matt Korda, senior research associate and project manager for the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, an organization that specializes in denuclearization and disarmament. Nikkei and experts analyzed high-precision photos from Planet Labs, a U.S. satellite operation company. The photographs showed an airplane-shaped structure with twin engines and a disk-shaped radar, a distinctive feature of the AWACS.

A full-scale model of a U.S. aircraft carrier and destroyer were also found in the area, and there are indications that the Chinese military is using the site to test weapons. This is the first time that an object with a shape similar to an SDF aircraft has been identified. Some worry that China's military operations would impact Japan in an event like a contingency related to Taiwan.

A full-scale model of a U.S. aircraft carrier and destroyer were also found in the area. (Photo by 2022Planet Labs PBC)

Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is seeking a third term as leader, has laid out a goal of reunification with Taiwan. While this goal is based on a peaceful unification, China has frequently said that it "will not renounce the use of force against outside interference or independence forces," a position that does not preclude military aggression. In reality, the Chinese military has been active in the area around Taiwan.

"The PLA's stated goal in war is to conduct 'system destruction warfare,' where they focus on destroying the information nodes that supply their enemy's military with the information that it needs to fight effectively," CNAS's Shugart noted. "The E-767 represents a key information node for the JSDF -- one that provides airborne early warning information to other aircraft. By destroying the E-767s on the ground at the start of a conflict, perhaps as part of preemptive missile strikes on JSDF bases, the PLA's goal would be to seize air and information dominance in accordance with known PLA doctrine," he added.

The model E-767 was seen parked on a runway, indicating that Japan's ground bases could also be attacked in a contingency.

Left: A satellite image of what might be a model of the Su'ao naval base in Taiwan. (Photo by 2022Planet Labs PBC) / Right: A Google Earth image of the Taiwanese base. (Source photo by Google Earth) 

The U.S. Naval Institute (USNI) also found full-scale models resembling a U.S. aircraft carrier and destroyer in the area in November 2021. The SDF and the U.S. forces in Japan are working to improve their cooperation, including data sharing. AWACS aircraft are indispensable in modern warfare, making them desirable targets among the SDF assets.

Moreover, on May 11, the USNI also found in the same area models of a destroyer and port facility that resembled the Su'ao naval base in northeastern Taiwan. The base is thought to have an important role in intercepting any Chinese invasion from the sea.

Nikkei asked the Chinese Embassy in Japan in writing whether the object found was modeled after an E-767 and was intended for use in missile testing. "The embassy is not aware of such a fact," an official said.

What is an AWACS?

Airborne Warning and Control System deployed by JASDF. (Photo courtesy of Japan's Ministry of Defense)

The JASDF's four AWACS aircraft are known as "flying command posts." AWACS is an acronym for Airborne Warning and Control System. A disc-shaped radar mounted on the top of the aircraft can monitor in all directions from the air and provide commands for friendly fighters.

Radar at high altitudes can cover a wider area than ground-based radar. It can more easily detect planes and missiles that enter at very low altitudes or attack from a distance. AWACS is key to gaining air superiority as the system can track an enemy's movements.

The E-767 was developed by Boeing based on the B-767 midsize airliner. It is just under 50 meters long and 50 meters wide, and about 16 meters high. It is powered by two engines and has a top speed of over 800 km per hour. Its cruising range exceeds 9,000 km.

Japan began operating the E-767 at the JASDF Hamamatsu Air Base in 2000. The JASDF is the only force worldwide to operate the aircraft. The E-3 AWACS used by the U.S. military and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is still in service, although it is an older model based on the B-707. NATO is using the E-3 to monitor NATO airspace in order to assure and protect Allies following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

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