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Politics

Japan's 'submarine killer' tantalizes West

TOKYO -- Japan's state-of-the-art maritime patrol aircraft has been attracting increasing attention, not only from its key ally, the U.S., but also from Europe amid growing concerns about movements by Russian submarines.

The P-1 maritime patrol aircraft (Courtesy of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force)

    The P-1, built by Kawasaki Heavy Industries for Japan's Self-Defense Forces, is the country's first domestically made anti-submarine patrol plane.

     Its main mission is to conduct maritime warning and surveillance activities. The aircraft is 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 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 begin during the current fiscal year.

      P-1s are priced at about 20 billion yen ($163 million) each. The Defense Ministry plans to procure five per year starting in 2018 and eventually deploy a total of some 70.

     On June 25 the MSDF showed a P-1 to the media for the first time, describing its improvements over the P-3, Japan's current mainstay maritime patrol plane.

     The P-1 has color radar screens, making it easier to detect and track the movements of suspicious vessels, and its sonobuoy, a device used to gather acoustic data and locate submarines, also offers higher performance. 

     Moreover, the P-1 is a jet, while the P-3 is a propeller plane, giving the new plane a maximum speed about 30% faster than its predecessor. The P-1 also has a range of about 8,000km, compared with the P-3's approximately 6,600km.

U.S. expectations

The U.S. military is stepping up its surveillance activities in the South China Sea, flying its P-8 state-of-the-art maritime patrol aircraft, in response to China's moves to build military footholds on reclaimed land.

     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 on its own.

     A U.S. Defense Department official expressed hope that the American military and the SDF will work together in the South China Sea, pointing out that the two nations share common interests there and in the East China Sea.

     So far, the SDF has 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 long enough to conduct surveillance activities," a senior SDF official said.

     The full-scale introduction of the P-1 will not dramatically alter the situation, something the U.S. military is aware of.

     "The U.S. military has not made any specific request to Japan regarding warning and surveillance activities in the South China Sea," a Japanese government source said.

     What, then, does the U.S. military expect Japan to do?

     A former senior U.S. government official familiar with the Defense Department's thinking said 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. to increase its activities in the South China Sea, the official said.

U.K. interest

The P-1 has also drawn attention from Europe.

     The plane was a major 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, as reported by DoD Buzz, the U.S. defense news website. This interest comes as relations between the West and Russia deteriorate.

     "The cooler relations get between the West and Russia over the Ukrainian crisis, the more robust Russian military activities near Europe's borders become," a European diplomatic source said.

     "In waters near Britain and Nordic countries, movements of suspected Russian submarines are on the rise," the source added.

     Given the 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.

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