Su-24 Fencer.

According to RIA Novrosti, five Russian military aircraft flew near Japan yesterday, causing Japanese air defenses to scramble.

According to the ministry, a total of five Russian planes, including two Tu-95 Bear strategic bombers, two Su-24 Fencer reconnaissance planes and an A-50 Mainstay airborne early warning and control aircraft skirted Japanese territory on Wednesday.

“They flew over the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan off Hokkaido and the Tohoku region in northeastern Japan,” Japanese officials said, adding that it was the first time a Russian AWACS plane was spotted near Japan.

This is a familiar pattern for Russian military flights–starting from Ukrainka Air Base, flying south, then skirting Japan’s northeastern edge, down to the northeastern edge of Honshu. Russian aircraft have been known to virtually circumnavigate the country, although that is usually done by long endurance Tu-95 bear bombers.

Russian (red) and Chinese (yellow) flight patterns around Japan (Source: Asagumo)

The presence of shorter range Su-24 Fencers probably restricted the range of this particular sortie.

A-50 AWACs.

This is the first time I’ve read about Fencer aircraft flying near Japan. Originally designed as a swing-wing tactical bomber, the Su-24 has two reconnaissance variants. According to Wikipedia, these are:

Su-24MR (‘Fencer-E’) Dedicated tactical reconnaissance variant. First flight 25 July 1980 as T-6MR-26, 13 April 1983 as Su-24MR. Entered service in 1983. Su-24MR retains much of the Su-24M’s navigation suite, including the terrain-following radar, but deletes the Orion-A attack radar, the laser/TV system, and the cannon in favor of two panoramic camera installations, ‘Aist-M’ (‘Stork’) TV camera, RDS-BO ‘Shtik’ (‘Bayonet’) side-looking airborne radar (SLAR), and ‘Zima’ (‘Winter’) infrared reconnaissance system. Other sensors are carried in pod form. Manufactured 1983-1993.

Su-24MP (‘Fencer-F’) Dedicated electronic signals intelligence (ELINT) variant, intended to replace the Yak-28PP ‘Brewer-E’. First flight 14 March 1980 as T-6MP-25, 7 April 1983 as Su-24MP. The Su-24MP has additional antennas for intelligence-gathering sensors, omitting the laser/TV fairing, but retaining the cannon and provision for up to four R-60 (AA-8) missiles for self-defense. Only 10 were built.

Russian flights near Japan are typically more political in nature, meant to intimidate Japan, although they do allegedly fly profiles that put them on course to attack Japanese radar installations. The inclusion of the Su-24 recon planes is curious and it’s interesting to speculate what the Su-24s were assigned to spy on. I can’t think of anything along the flight profile that would be visible to reconnaissance aircraft. It’s doubtful they were taking pictures of tsunami damage.

Tu-95 Bear strategic bomber.

The report doesn’t say what aircraft were scrambled in response, but the location implies F-15Js from the hard-working 201 and 203 Hikotai (Squadrons), which are responsible for intercepts along Japan’s northern border. The article goes on to say that Japanese “F-16″ aircraft also shadowed the Russian group, which further implies that as it turned south, the group was handed over to F-2 fighters from 3 and 8 Hikotai, Misawa Air Base.

All of the Russian Aircraft, the A-50, Su-24s, and Tu-95s, are old designs. The youngest aircraft in the group can’t be any younger than 18 years, and the only aircraft that could have been modernized since the 1990s is the lone A-50.

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 536 post(s) on Japan Security Watch