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Japan Turns Its F-15s Into Ship-Killers

It’s official. The Japanese air force plans to add an anti-ship capability to its fleet of F-15Js as part of a comprehensive upgrade to the three-decade-old fighters.

It’s no secret why. As the Chinese navy adds powerful new ships, the Japanese air force adds powerful new ship-sinking weapons.

But pity the poor F-15J pilots, who are already some of the busiest combat aviators in the world—and now must add anti-ship training to their schedule.

Japan acquired 213 F-15s starting in 1980. The J-model is nearly identical to the U.S. Air Force’s C-model F-15, with the exception of uniquely Japanese electronic-warfare gear, data-links and air-to-air missiles.

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The F-15s, operated by seven front-line squadrons at four air bases, are Japan’s main interceptors. The F-2 and F-35 fighters are multi-role aircraft.

As such, the F-15s handle most of the hundreds of interceptions the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force undertakes every year as Chinese warplanes intrude on Japan’s Air-Defense Identification Zones.

The JASDF performed a staggering 947 intercepts in 2019—more than any other country. That’s twice as many as the combined air forces of the NATO states undertook in the same period.

“These daily scrambles are gradually wearing the F-15J fleet out,” Peter Layton, an analyst with Australia’s Lowy Institute, told CNN. “The concern is that China has some six times more fighters then the JASDF, and could further ramp up intrusions whenever it considers appropriate. The in-service life of Japan’s F-15J fleet is now almost a decision that lies with China.”

To keep the F-15s healthy and up-to-date, Japan has funded several major upgrade programs that have added new sensors, weapons, engine modifications and structural enhancements.

The latest program aims to transform 98 F-15s into so-called “Japan Super Interceptors.” The U.S. State Department approved the $4.5-billion program in 2019. American aerospace firm Boeing BA , which builds the F-15, has signed on to support the effort.

The Japan Super Interceptor program adds the AN/APG-82(v)1 electronically-scanned array radar plus new electronic-warfare gear, GPS and radios. And for the first time, the F-15JSIs will get an air-to-surface weapons.

A Boeing rendering depicts an F-15JSI clutching a Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile Extended Range under its belly. Tokyo this year announced it would acquire JASSM-ER cruise missiles and the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile—a variant of the JASSM—at a cost of at least a couple hundred million dollars.

JASSM can strike ground targets as far away as 600 miles. LRASM’s range is classified.

At present, the JASDF’s F-2s and F-35s are its primary ship-killers. But these aircraft must contend with a growing number of large Chinese warships. The Chinese navy since 2011 has commissioned two aircraft carriers, several amphibious assault ships and the biggest destroyers outside of Russia and the United States.

Japan’s strategy in a war with China is to blockade the Chinese fleet at the chokepoints between the Japanese islands, Taiwan and The Philippines in order to prevent Beijing’s ships from reaching the open sea. F-15JSIs armed with LRASMs could expand by a third the number of warplanes the JASDF can hurl at a Chinese fleet.

But F-15JSI pilots will have to train for the anti-ship mission while also performing most of the JASDF’s intercepts of Chinese warplanes. Those aviators are about to become some of the busiest in the world.

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