TOKYO -- Japan's state-of-the-art maritime patrol aircraft has been attracting increasing attention, not only from its most important ally, the U.S., but also from Europe amid growing concerns about movements by Russian submarines.
The P-1 is built by Kawasaki Heavy Industries for Japan's Self-Defense Forces. It is the country's first purely domestically made anti-submarine patrol plane.
The P-1's main mission is to conduct maritime warning and surveillance activities. The aircraft is also dubbed a "submarine killer" because it is capable of detecting and attacking submarines that cannot be perceived with the naked eye.
The Maritime Self-Defense Force currently has about 10 P-1 planes deployed at Atsugi Air Base in Kanagawa Prefecture. They have so far been operating on a trial basis. Full-scale operations are scheduled to commence during the current fiscal year ending in March 2016.
P-1s are priced at about 20 billion yen ($163 million) each. The Defense Ministry plans to procure five of the planes per year starting in 2018 and eventually deploy a total of some 70.
The MSDF showed a P-1 to the media for the first time on June 25, detailing how it is superior to the P-3, the MSDF's current mainstay maritime patrol plane.
The plane has color radar screens, making it easier to detect and track the movements of suspicious vessels. The new aircraft's sonobuoy, a device used to gather acoustic data and locate submarines, also offers higher performance.
The P-1's capability is much greater than the P-3's. For example, the P-1 is a jet, while the P-3 is a propeller plane. The P-1's maximum speed is about 30% faster than the P-3's. The P-1 also has a longer range of some 8,000km, compared with the P-3's approximately 6,600km.
Many people in foreign countries are paying close attention to the P-1's upcoming full-scale operational debut.
On June 26 -- the day after the P-1's media debut, the online edition of the Wall Street Journal published an article headlined "Japan's New Surveillance Jet Expands Scope for Patrols."
The U.S. military is now stepping up its surveillance activities in the South China Sea, flying the P-8 state-of-the-art maritime patrol aircraft, in response to China's moves to build military footholds on reclaimed land there.
But it will not be easy for the U.S. military, which does not have a permanent base in the South China Sea, to continue such activities over the long term and on its own.
That is why there are growing expectations in the U.S. of cooperation with Japan's SDF, which is now preparing to fully introduce the P-1.
In fact, a U.S. Defense Department official expressed hope that the U.S. military and the SDF will work together in the South China Sea, pointing out that the two countries share common interests there as well as in the East China Sea.
The SDF has so far not engaged in surveillance activities in the South China Sea because the area is some 2,000km from its nearest base, Naha Air Base in Okinawa.
"It may be possible for our airplanes to just shuttle between Naha and the South China Sea. But it would be difficult for them to stay in the area for long to conduct surveillance activities," said a senior SDF official.
The situation will not change significantly even after the full-scale introduction of the P-1. The U.S. military is also aware of this reality.
"The U.S. military has actually not made any specific request to Japan regarding warning and surveillance activities in the South China Sea," said a Japanese government source.
What is the U.S. military now expecting Japan to do?
A former senior U.S. government official familiar with the Defense Department's thinking said that it would be more realistic for the SDF to take over part of the U.S. military's warning and surveillance activities in the East China Sea.
Such cooperation would allow the U.S. military to increase its activities in the South China Sea, the official said.
Meanwhile, the P-1 has also drawn attention from Europe as well.
In fact, the plane became a focal point of discussion when Japan and Britain held their first "two-plus-two" meeting of foreign and defense ministers in London in late January.
Britain has shown an interest in purchasing P-1s. DoD Buzz, the U.S. defense-related news website, also reported the British interest on June 17. It comes amid deteriorating relations between the West and Russia.
One European diplomatic source said that with relations between the West and Russia cooling over the Ukrainian crisis, the Russian military's movements near Europe's borders are also becoming brisk.
In waters near Britain and Nordic countries, activities of suspected Russian submarines are on the rise, the source said.
Under such circumstances, Britain may be trying to build up its anti-submarine patrolling capabilities in earnest for the first time since the end of the Cold War.
In the international market for anti-submarine patrol aircraft, the U.S.-made P-8 is likely to become a rival to Japan's P-1. The West's strong interest in the P-1 reflects the tense reality of the international situation.