The United States and Japan were all set for a day of joint naval practice yesterday when two very uninvited and disruptive guests showed up: Russian sub-hunting planes.
The U.S. and Japanese navies were in the Sea of Japan for their biennial Keen Sword exercises in the largest U.S.-Japan defense drill to date when two Il-38 Anti-Submarine Warfare planes buzzed the assembled warships, forcing the U.S. to scramble F-15s to intercept them. The exercise was briefly postponed in order to prevent the Russian sub-hunters from snooping on the naval operations.
Russia defended its actions, saying the planes were operating legally in international waters. It’s nonetheless annoying for the U.S. and Japan — and that may be the point.
The U.S. has been beefing up military ties with East Asian partners in the wake of increasing North Korean aggression, sending the U.S.S. George Washington to drill with South Korea and inviting South Korean officers on hand to observe Keen Sword. So its fairly clear that the exercise isn’t aimed at intimidating Russia,though it dates to the cold war.
But the Russians might not exactly see it that way. Over the last month, Russian and Japanese politicians have made dueling visits to islands claimed by both countries. Russia’s interruption of the exercise was likely intended as a reminder that it still feels a bit strongly about its claims to the disputed islands.
Trolling rivals with military aircraft has been a favorite tactic for Russia to remind folks its still a force to be reckoned with, despite its economic troubles during the 1990s. In recent years, it has buzzed U.S. aircraft carriers and the borders of its NATO rivals with bombers and fighter jets. Russia even went for a retro Cuban missile crisis effect by threatening to send Tu-160 supersonic bombers to Cuba if the United States didn’t drop its plans for a missile shield in Eastern Europe.
But it seems like everybody wants to show their muscles in seas of East Asia these days, from China, to the U.S. to North Korea and now Russia and Japan. With all the activity, the waters in the region look they’re in danger of getting pretty warm soon.