Connect with us

Politics & Security

EDITORIAL | If Japan Starts Shooting at Spy Balloons, Why Not Intruding Jets Too?

Tokyo must clarify whether the rules for shooting down spy balloons also apply to manned aircraft, which have the potential to inflict more devastating damage.



spy balloon
Sailors prepare to transport the wreckage of the Chinese "spy balloon" on February 10, 2023, in Virginia Beach, Virginia, United States. (© US Navy via Kyodo )

The Japanese government is currently reviewing how the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) Act is applied. It plans to relax conditions under which weapons may be used to shoot down unmanned flying objects that have invaded Japan's airspace, including spy balloons and drones.

Up until now, Japan has thought solely in terms of intrusions into its airspace by manned aircraft. Furthermore, the SDF is only authorized to use weapons for legitimate self-defense or in connection with emergency evacuations. 

Recently, the United States shot down a Chinese spy balloon that had violated US airspace and protested the action to China. In order to protect our sovereignty and security from the new threat from above posed by balloons and drones, Japan too must have the option to shoot them down. 

To ensure air traffic safety for commercial aircraft and protect the lives and property of the public, the ruling party has endorsed a proposal to allow the use of weapons to take down balloons. That is a reasonable response for the time being. Hopefully, the government will now promptly move to relax the requirements so that the SDF can study the issue and train to shoot down intrusive airborne devices.

However, the response is still inadequate. 

How About Intrusions by Manned Aircraft?

First, it is not clear whether the newly relaxed requirements for dealing with intruders will also apply to intruding fighter jets and other manned aircraft.

If manned aircraft unilaterally enter Japan's airspace to attack or gather information, the damage could be devastating. But as things now stand, when Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) aircraft respond to airspace intrusions, their options are limited. They cannot exercise the option to attack an intruding manned aircraft except in self-defense or in an emergency evacuation. 


The current requirements treat the lives of JASDF pilots lightly and cannot be justified. We must end such a ludicrous approach to dealing with intruders. It is absolutely essential that the conditions for responding to manned aircraft intrusions also be relaxed. 

Air Self-Defense Force fighters fly alongside German Air Force fighters near Mt Fuji. (© Japan Air Self-Defense Force)

SDF Unable to Fulfill National Defense Duty

The second issue is that the SDF's response to airspace incursions is said to be based on law enforcement powers. However, Article 84 of the Self-Defense Forces law stipulates that the SDF may take necessary measures to drive off intruders from Japanese airspace. There is no mention of law enforcement authority anywhere in the act. 

Be that as it may, any measure taken is now considered an exercise of police powers. Perhaps it is because it takes place before a defense operations order has been issued. This means weapons can only be employed in legitimate self-defense or for an emergency evacuation. The result puts those defending Japan into a truly bizarre situation.

We must not continue to treat the SDF as if they were a police reserve force. Otherwise, Japan will be unable to fulfill its essential duty of national defense. Since the government treats the SDF as a military force in terms of international law, the approved responses to airspace incursions should be changed accordingly. It should be clear that Japan's SDF can respond based on the right of self-defense.

Japan's Failure to Respond to Past Intrusions

The government has announced its strong suspicion that Chinese "unmanned reconnaissance balloons" flew over Japan on three occasions, including once in November 2019. It has also protested to Beijing that such violations of Japanese airspace are unacceptable. 

spy balloons
A flying object that resembles a Chinese "spy balloon," photographed by a Sendai Space Hall employee with a smartphone through a telescope, in Satsumasendai, Kagoshima Prefecture, on November 20, 2019. (© Sendai Space Hall)

China lashed out in response. One has to wonder why the Chinese government could not just gracefully apologize.

In any event, the failure of the Japanese government to respond to the spy balloon provocations until the US actions called attention to them is certainly troubling. It is something we as a nation should intensely reflect upon. 


(Read the editorial in Japanese.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun