This post contains rough translations of two Sankei articles showing just how important this year’s Miyakojima Run was. Japan Security Watch broke news of the use of a shipborne UAV earlier last week (and we are grateful for all that have used our translations and initial analysis to cover the event), but China’s naval exercise is important for many more reasons. The first article below discusses how the UAV fits into the large scheme of China’s growing joint warfare capabilities in the East and South China Seas, and a second article at the bottom discusses China’s disturbing use of helicopters to harass foreign military vessels.

Dangerous Waves from the East China Sea: Chinese UAV a Display of Chinese Naval Warfare Capability

Chinese naval UAV (top-right) spotted by the MSDF

Chinese naval UAV (top-right) spotted by the MSDF (Source: MoD)

During a Chinese naval training voyage of the largest ever assembled fleet, the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) confirmed for the first time the existence of a Chinese unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Training in such technically challenging feats as night-time seaborne resupply, the Chinese fleet seemed to have beeen putting on display its rapidly modernizing naval power.  In addition to the rivalry with Russia [ed: see below], who tore through the US-Japanese early warning surveillance network, the threat of imminent military action in the waters from the East China Sea to the Pacific Ocean is growing.

“Furthermore, they seem to be expanding their areas of activity in an effort to normalize such activities.” Chief of the Joint Staff Ryoichi Oriki expressed a strong sense of caution over the Chinese naval ocean training at a press conference on the 23rd. China assigned some of its latest equipment to this year’s operation and there was a remarkable improvement in their combat capability.

One of the major observations was of a UAV capable of taking off and landing from a ship. According to the MoD, it looked like a civilian use unmanned helicopter normally used for crop-spraying that had been diverted into military use. At the 2009 military review parade in Tiananmen Square, an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft was on display alongside airborne early warning and control aircraft and aerial refueling aircraft, but the importance of this latest equipment to the Chinese military is that its UAV capability has now expanded to shipborne operations.

Last April, the Chinese fleet’s training focused logistical support and the practice of seaborne replenishment in the open seas. This time it had progressed to night-time seaborne replenishment and shipborne helicopter take off and landing operations.

Regarding logistical support, in the East China Sea since 2009, China has again and again held training for the mid-air refueling of fighters, and it has not tried to hide its intent to expand its airpower capabilities. China has been pursuing the rapid development of its air and seapower capabilities on its “two fronts”, the East China Sea and South China Sea, with the intention of enhancing its joint operational capability.

Since July 2010, China has increased its live-fire and anti-ship missile practice on both fronts. Following the declaratiion by Wu Shengli, Commander in Chief of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, calling for “the normalization of deep-sea training”, this policy will be put into effect from July. With he launch of the Ukranian aircraft carrier Varyag is scheduled to take place on July 1st, the US and Japan are intensifying their vigilance.

At the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) last July, China immediately responded to US Secretary of State Clinton’s declaration that “The United States … has a national interest in freedom of navigation” with a large-scale exercise in the South China Sea. In the meantime, ahead of this year’s ARF in the second half of next month, Sino-American diplomatic haggling is shaping up to be particularly intense. (By Naohisa Hanzawa)

* * * * *

A Chopper?

It is notable that the first article quotes the Ministry of Defense in suggesting that the Chinese UAV was a rotary-wing vehicle. Could it be that the technology that the Chinese used to build it originated from Japan in the early 2000s?

A Yamaha RMAX Type II G - Cousin of the Chinese UAV?

A Yamaha RMAX Type II G - Cousin of the Chinese UAV? (Source: yas417)

In 2007, Yamaha were fined ¥1,000,000 by Hamamatsu Summary Court (in Shizuoka Prefecture) following the export of nine RMAX L181 remotely-piloted helicopter to China without a license between 2001 and 2005. The Chinese aerial photography company that purchased the UAVs were known to be particularly close to the Chinese military, and Yamaha apparently knew that the technology would be passed on, forcing the Japanese prosecutors to pursue the case, although ¥1,000,000 is a particularly small fine (around $8,500 at the time). An International Export Control Observer [pdf] report (Mar/Apr 2007) notes:

The RMAX L181 is a crop dusting, camera-equipped, rotary wing helicopter that can be controlled remotely. Yamaha has insisted that the helicopter cannot be used for military purposes because of technical limitations and therefore it did not require an export license. However, the Japanese government countered that because the RMAX model in question comes with a global positioning system (GPS), a programmable unmanned flight capability, and aerosol dispenser cassette tanks that can be filled with chemical or biological weapon agents, the helicopter could be adapted for military applications. Investigators claimed that Yamaha knew of the dual-use potential despite the company’s claims to the contrary.

In 2004, Gizmag called the RMAX “the world’s most advanced non-military UAV” and around that time, the RMAX was already apparently being put to use in the Tianyan-2, if some reports are to be believed.

Is this shipborne UAV derived from the RMAX? Is it even rotary-wing? It’s difficult to tell from the image released by the MoD, but it doesn’t have any visible wings and we can assume that the matter is much clearer in the testimony of the pilots that observed the craft. Needless to say, many Japanese military observers will feel angry that Japan might once again be the source of Chinese military technology advances – a common complaint here.

* * * * *

The Sankei also reported on the seemingly common use of helicopters and aircraft to harass nearby ships after an incident between a Chinese helicopter and Russian intelligence-gathering vessel during the same training exercise:

Chinese Helicopter Threatening Approach on a Russian Warship in the eastern Philippine Sea

The Hangzhou (136), a Sovremenny-class destroyer involved in this year's Miyakojima Run

The Hangzhou (136), a Sovremenny-class destroyer involved in this year's Miyakojima Run (Source: rybachi)

On the 23rd, it was learned that helicopters from the Chinese naval fleet that passed between Okinawa and Miyakojima, from the East China Sea to the eastern Philippine Sea, were involved in a dangerous approach and then threateningly circled a Russian warship conducting surveillance in the vicinity. There were also Japanese and American forces in the area on alert and conducting surveillance on the Chinese fleet’s training operations. They confirmed that as the Russian vessel embarked on a reconnaissance operation, the Chinese stirred up a “sea of tension”.

On June 8th and 9th,  after passing between Okinawa and Miyakojima, the Chinese fleet of 11 vessels, its largest ever assembled, entered the eastern area of the Philippine Sea. The 11 vessels, among which were missile destroyers and frigates, remained in the area for just under a week and practiced anti-submarine training. On the 22nd and 23rd, they returned to China along the same route.

Maritime Self-Defense Force and US Navy vessels and aircraft conducted surveillance on the Chinese movement. As they did so, they noticed the late arrival of the Russian warship. After detecting the ship, the Chinese dispatched helicopters from aboard the ship which closed in on the Russian warship and circled it in a confrontational manner.

Besides the single Russian intelligence-gathering vessel that was seen, there were three Sovremenny-class destroyers in the Chinese fleet which were bought from Russia. Because of this, the Russians are believed to have been interested in learning about the effect on Chinese naval warfare capabilitie of the “mixed formation”, a combination of destroyers and frigates introduced in 2003, with regard to the Russia’s use of their own Sovremenny-class vessels.

In addition to a helicopter making an abnormal approach on a MSDF vessel at an altitude of 30 meters and distance of 90 meters in  April 2010 as a fleet of 10 Chinese vessels conducted training in the vicinity of Okinotorishima, this spring, helicopters and aircraft harassed MSDF vessels on three occasions.

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A former contributor to World Intelligence (Japan Military Review), James Simpson joined Japan Security Watch in 2011, migrating with his blog Defending Japan. He has a Masters in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and is currently living in Kawasaki, Japan. His primary interests include the so-called 'normalization' of Japanese security (i.e. militarization), and the political impact of the abduction issue with North Korea.
James Simpson has 254 post(s) on Japan Security Watch