The Complex

If China's Airspace Grab Turns Violent, Here's How the Dogfight Could Go Down

Last week China announced a new air defense identification zone over the East China Sea, basically insisting it's in charge of the airspace over the disputed Senkaku Islands claimed by Japan.

Japan and the United States said they would not recognize the ID zone and promptly sent in warplanes to underscore the point. U.S. B-52 bombers flew over the Senkakus, practically inviting a Chinese intervention.

Two days later, the Chinese air force flew J-11 and Su-30 fighters and a KJ-2000 radar plane into the zone.

With tensions mounting, I decided to see what might happen if the maneuvers escalated into actual combat. In my scenario, played out in the ultra-realistic computer game Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations (C:MANO), Beijing decides to teach Tokyo a lesson -- and opens fire on the Japanese planes. When three of the world's most high-tech air arms meet in simulated battle, the results might surprise you.

J-11 fighters. Via

Battle plan

China plans to ambush one of Japan's air patrols -- a P-3C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft and an accompanying pair of F-15J Eagle fighters -- as it makes its daily flight through the Ryukyu and Senkaku islands, hundreds of miles south of mainland Japan.

The southernmost islands in Japan's archipelago, the sparsely populated Ryukyus and Senkakus are also the closest to China. Japan has limited options in defending them. The daily flight is in many ways just a reassurance to the local population.

If the attack on the Orion is successful and the opportunity presents itself, the Chinese could also shoot down an E-2C Hawkeye airborne early-warning aircraft orbiting southwest of Okinawa. The destruction of four planes and the deaths of as many as 21 aircrew members would be a great loss for Japan.

The Chinese air force plans to send up three groups of planes. The first, with four J-11B fighters, will try to take out Japan's F-15 escorts, leaving the Orion patrol plane defenseless.

The second Chinese group, composed of four J-10 multi-role fighters, will then dart in and shoot down the Orion -- and potentially also the Hawkeye.

Providing radar coverage and command and control will be the third group, with a KJ-2000 airborne early-warning aircraft flanked by fighter escorts. The early-warning group will stay out of the battle zone, instead holding off the coast of China.

All the Chinese fighters will be fully armed, with the J-11Bs carrying four PL-12 long-range radar-homing missiles plus four PL-9 short-range infrared-homing missiles. The J-10s will carry two of each munition.

Air Self-Defense Force F-15J fighters. Via Wikipedia. 

Self-defense forces
The Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) has recently begun fighter escorts of patrols in the area, protecting the daily Maritime Self Defense Force P-3 flight with a pair of F-15s.

separate pair of F-15s is patrolling directly over the inhabited Ryukyus. The fighters are part of 204 Hikotai, a squadron based in Okinawa.

The F-15s, not expecting air-to-air combat, are carrying a light weapons load of just two AAM-4 long-range radar missiles plus two AAM-3 short-range IR missiles.

A pair of U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth fighters on temporary rotation in Okinawa are conducting maneuvers southeast of the island. Due to the increased tensions, the F-22s are armed with six AMRAAM long-range missiles and two Sidewinder short-range missiles.

Thanks to the close relationship between the JASDF and the U.S. Air Force, the Raptors can come to the aid of the Japanese, if necessary.

Despite careful planning, the Chinese air force has a less complete picture of the battle space than it thinks. The Chinese are not aware of the second pair of F-15Js or the Raptor flight.

JASDF units begin to track unknown contacts. Yellow icons are China, Blue are Japan and United States. C:MANO screen grab.


It's another tense day over the East China Sea as the Japanese P-3 lumbers toward the Senkakus, 50 miles to the west. Two miles distant at the Orion's eight o'clock are its two F-15 escorts.

The plan is to fly west, overfly the Senkaku Islands of Uotsuri and Kuba, and then return to Okinawa. The F-15s have their sensors off, with radar coverage provided by the E-2 radar plane orbiting west of Okinawa.

The Hawkeye picks up several unknown radar contacts in the distance: eight bogies in three identifiable groups, the closest of which is 120 miles from the Orion.

A Chinese Type 1474 radar signal is coming from one contact, which signals analysts deduce as emanating from a J-11B fighter. Three more contacts are close to the radar source, meaning a possible total of four J-11Bs.

The defenseless Orion immediately turns around and heads for home at full speed. But the big propeller-driven plane can make only 400 miles per hour -- too slow to outrun J-11s. The F-15s will have to cover the Orion's withdrawal until it reaches a safe distance.

The two Japanese fighters turn on their radars and accelerate, heading straight toward the potentially hostile contacts.

With both sides racing toward each other at a combined 1,000 miles per hour, the gap closes pretty quickly. At 56 miles, the closest unknown air group is positively identified as J-11Bs.

At 22 miles, alarms go off in the F-15s' cockpits. Missile launches from the opposing warplanes! The Japanese are under attack.

The F-15s swiftly counterattack. Each Japanese fighter has just two AAM-4 missiles. To maximize their chances of downing a Chinese fighter, the F-15 pilots would want to target only two J-11s with two missiles apiece. But right now it's more important to the Japanese to break up the enemy attack and buy the Orion some time.

They launch one missile at each inbound J-11 and then turn to retreat.

Firing back, the Chinese manage to launch only 10 of their 16 PL-12 missiles before the inbound Japanese missiles force them to take evasive action. The Chinese fighters are unable to fire the last third of their long-range missiles and are soon bobbing and weaving all over the sky to avoid getting shot down.

Still, chances of survival are slim for the F-15s. Despite being an inferior missile, the Chinese PL-12s have the advantage of numbers. The F-15s take evasive action of their own, activating electronic countermeasures to distract the missiles and bursting clouds of radar-defeating chaff.

Each Chinese missile has a low probability of intercept, but there are 10 of them -- and all it takes is one hit. A minute apart, both F-15s wink off radar screens.

In the meantime, the four Japanese AAM-4s down one J-11, leaving three still flying. The three remaining J-11s, followed by four J-10s, roar through the sudden tear in the Japanese air defenses.

Minutes after firing their volley of long-range missiles, the second flight of F-15Js has turned away, following behind the P-3C Orion. C:MANO screen grab.


Seconds after the Chinese fighters have been identified, the second pair of F-15s flying near Miyako island turn north to assist their squadron mates. Lighting their afterburners, the F-15s raced toward the battle at the speed of sound.

The Eagles turn on their radars to get the Chinese jets' attention and hopefully lure some of them away. It doesn't work. The F-15 pilots watch as their comrades disappear from radar.

As the Chinese J-11s chase down the Orion, the surviving F-15s focus their attack, assigning two AAM-4 missiles per J-11, starting with the lead plane. Two Chinese jets go down in flames.

Out of missiles, the second flight of F-15s turns for home. They could in theory press the attack with shorter-range IR missiles, but they're still outnumbered two to five. The odds are not good for the Japanese.

Plus, they know something that the Chinese don't. The moment the Orion turned to escape, the two American F-22s on a training mission east of Okinawa went on a war footing and headed toward the raging air battle at around 1,000 miles per hour.

The Chinese are on a collision course with the deadliest fighters ever made.

F-22 Raptors. U.S. Air Force photo.

Raptor down

Despite the Eagles' best efforts, the Orion is still in danger. At maximum speed, the patrol plane is still slower than the Chinese fighters racing to catch up with it.

But American and Japanese commanders believe the F-22s will tip the battle in their favor. Each Raptor carries six AMRAAM missiles, meaning the Americans have 12 missiles to destroy five Chinese fighters.

The F-22 pilots target two AMRAAMs at each enemy jet. In doing so, they switch on their AN/APG-77 radars -- a potentially unnecessary and dangerous move. Active radar helps you target the enemy, but it also betrays your position.

Incredibly, all six of the AMRAAMs in the first U.S. volley miss their targets. Two of the four missiles in the second volley hit, leaving the Chinese with three fighters. The Americans quickly retarget the Chinese with their last two AMRAAMs and a J-10 fighter goes down in flames.

Now the Chinese are down to two fighters. The American and Japanese commanders believe they have won the battle. Then something even more incredible happens: one of the stealthy F-22s explodes.

The allied officers are stunned by this sudden turn of events. They believed in the superiority -- the invincibility -- of the Raptor. So when the Chinese fired PL-12s at the F-22s, they didn't think too much of it. The Raptors would beat them. Heck, the non-stealthy Eagles had beaten most of the missiles fired at them.

What they should have stopped to consider is that the Chinese fighters had been able to detect the stealth planes, probably because the Americans had unwisely activated their own radars. While Chinese missiles are decidedly inferior, Beijing's Russian-designed sensors are pretty good.

And though Chinese missiles have a low kill probability, the J-10s and J-11s hurled at least a dozen of them at a single Raptor. One got through.

P-3C Orion. Creative Commons photo, Flickr user GT ARTS, Inc.

After-action report

The Chinese ambush of the Orion fails. The patrol plane gets away. For the allies, everything -- including losing three expensive fighters and possibly their pilots -- is secondary to defending the P-3 and its 12 crew members.

Six out of eight Chinese fighters have been shot down.

For Beijing, poor intelligence is to blame. Chinese commanders were not even aware that the United States and Japan had an extra four F-15s and F-22s in the battle zone.

Still, the Chinese have managed to shoot down the first two F-15s lost in air-to-air combat since the Eagle entered service in the 1970s. And they killed an F-22 -- the best and priciest fighter ever made.

So what does my simulation of the battle mean for the current situation in the East China Sea? Simply put, China has a chance of pulling off an aerial ambush. If my scenario is realistic. If the game's modeling is accurate. If the Chinese are little lucky and if U.S. and Japanese commanders make mistakes. And if the first volley of AMRAAMs misses.

To be sure, those are a lot of ifs.

I approached building the scenario with some trepidation. I asked myself just how the Chinese would go about taking down a Japanese plane.

The Japan Air Self-Defense Force is better-trained than the Chinese air force and at least as well armed. To have a chance of winning, Beijing would have to overwhelm its enemies with sheer numbers. Hence the order of battle I devised -- one that favors the Chinese.

In my defense, China probably can muster more numerous forces in any sudden Pacific showdown.

The United States and Japan rely on just two air bases -- Naha and Kadena, both in Okinawa -- to provide fighter cover for the Senkaku Islands. Against that, China has a large number of bases -- and is building more. That's the advantage of waging war in your backyard.

But numbers aren't everything. The United States and Japan count on their technological advantage compensating for the smaller sizes of their forces. They're not necessarily wrong to do so.

The F-22s' presence in my scenario made all the difference. Flying at 1,000 miles per hour, the Raptors arrived in the nick of time. The Chinese didn't know they were there until the Americans unwisely turned on their radars.

This scenario is not meant to exaggerate or glamorize the possibility of armed conflict in the East China Sea. The chances are remote that a shooting war will break out. That said, for years tensions have steadily escalated between China, Japan, and the United States.

Although just a simulation, my skirmish over the Senkakus has brought up some interesting points worth considering. The relative advantages of both sides make for a compelling argument for either side that it just might be successful.

This is not enough to prevent conflict. And if the United States and Japan really want to deter an increasingly aggressive China, they're going to have to figure out how to bring more airplanes to the fight.

Creative Commons via Flickr

The Complex

Exclusive: Classified Information Fight Involving Marine Gets Ugly

When Marine Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy fired off a passionate email to a superior officer in October, it looked like he was rallying to the side of Maj. Jason Brezler, an Afghanistan War veteran and New York City firefighter. Brezler was in hot water for sending classified information over an unclassified network, in an attempt to warn U.S. forces about a sinister police chief in Afghanistan, and Kennedy said he wanted to help.

Brezler had responded in July 2012 to a request for information from deployed Marines about the police chief, Sarwar Jan, who Brezler helped to oust from power in another district in Afghanistan during a deployment spanning parts of 2009 and 2010. On August 10, 2012, just weeks after Brezler sent his warning, the police chief's teenage servant and alleged sex abuse victim, Aynoddin, opened fire on a U.S. base, killing three Marines and critically wounding a fourth. Now, Brezler is expected to go before an administrative board in December that could oust him from the Marine Corps.

Kennedy, a veteran infantry officer, told Lt. Gen. Richard Mills in an Oct. 22 email obtained exclusively by Foreign Policy that he was concerned "some momentum has built to pillory" Brezler for his inadvertent spillage of classified information. The email is one in hundreds of pages of correspondence that provide a rare, unvarnished glimpse into how senior military officers interacted with one another on a contentious issue as it grabbed attention on Capitol Hill, in the national media and among the active-duty ranks.

Kennedy, like Mills, had spent a year commanding troops in Helmand province, and appeared concerned that Brezler was in danger of having his career ruined for "ill-considered execution of otherwise WORTHY and honorable intent," as Kennedy put it.

"His performance in Now Zad during our deployment was stellar," Kennedy said in his email to Mills, referring to the Afghan district in Helmand province. "Am afraid he has been scapegoated by non-Helmand-tested staff officers."

Later the same day, Mills responded to Kennedy, saying the one-star officer didn't have all the information about the case. Brezler, Mills said, had made more mistakes than simply sending a classified document as part of his warning about the shady police chief, Sarwar Jan.

"Paul, you need to get all the facts in the case.... No one is getting pilloried...." Mills said, in a message filled with ellipses. "The incident that he is using in his own defense is just a small slice of it..... He could have been court martialed..."

Kennedy later reconsidered and did not intervene, according to both Brezler's attorney and a Marine official with knowledge of the case. One month later, those emails are now part of a case that has grown increasingly complicated since August, when it was first reported by this reporter for Marine Corps Times. The case is getting uglier, too. Brezler's legal team asked the Marine Corps on Nov. 22 to replace Mills as the officer overseeing the case. The lawyers alleged the three-star general had overstated Brezler's mistakes repeatedly in correspondence with other generals, including Kennedy, by saying the major could have been court-martialed for his handling of classified information.

Brezler's lawyers said Mills' comments resemble unlawful command influence, a situation in which a senior officer's actions in a case sabotage its fairness. Unlawful command influence has been a hot-button issue in the military this year, to the point that the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals is hearing arguments and will likely rule soon on whether the service's top officer, Gen. James Amos, crossed a legal line by touring the Marine Corps last year to say he wanted misbehavior by Marines punished. Doing so made it impossible for Marines charged with crimes to get a fair trial, defense lawyers allege.

Brezler's lawyer, Kevin Carroll, also claimed in his Nov. 22 letter to the Marine Corps that there is an apparent conflict of interest in his client's case because one of the Marines in Afghanistan that Brezler warned about Sarwar Jan is the son-in-law of a retired Marine general officer, Lt. Gen. George Flynn, whom Mills worked with. The fact that Mills pushed for the punishment of Brezler, despite the Marine Corps not going after the officers who allowed the police chief access to the base after Brezler's warning, raises serious questions of favoritism, the lawyer alleged. The lawyer declined to identify Flynn's son-in-law to Foreign Policy, but the Daily Beast reported Nov. 19 he is Maj. Brian Donlon. Donlon did not respond to a request for comment.

 * * *

Brezler's predicament has received attention from the top of the service for months. Shortly after his story first reached the media, Gen. Amos, the Marine Corps' top general, fired an Aug. 26 email to three senior Marine officials asking for information about Brezler's case. The initial Marine Corps Times story had cited concerns raised by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who'd sent a July 11 letter to the commandant asking why Brezler had been given a career-ending performance appraisal despite the fact that his spillage of classified information came while sending a warning about an insider threat.

The commandant's email was titled "NEED GROUND TRUTH." In it, the four-star general said the initial news story was "the first I have heard about this," and that "I certainly have not seen a letter from Rep King to me." Amos asked the Marine Corps' acting inspector general, Carlyle Shelton, to "get past the news article and come back to me with what ground truth is please." Amos' email came about two weeks after the Marine Corps Office of Legislative Affairs already had responded to King in an Aug. 12 letter. It said Maj. Gen. James Lariviere, the commanding general of 4th Marine Division, had reviewed Brezler's case, and agreed with him getting a bad performance appraisal, known in the Marine Corps as a fitness report.

King told Foreign Policy on Tuesday that he doesn't expect the commandant to respond directly to every inquiry the congressman sends, but believes this one should have reached Amos.

"We're talking about something very unique here involving the murder of three Marines. It seems to me that this should have been directly given to the commandant," King said in an interview.

A spokesman for the commandant, Lt. Col. David Nevers, declined to comment for this story. The congressman said Brezler, who reported himself to authorities after sending classified information, should not be severely punished when he tried to notify deployed Marines as quickly as possible about an insider threat they faced.

"If there is another side to the story, I haven't heard it," King said. "No harm came from this [Brezler sending the warning], as best I know. It's going to be hard to explain to the American people that he tried to help, and now faces this."

The attack, on Forward Operating Base Delhi, killed Staff Sgt. Scott Dickinson, Cpl. Richard Rivera and Lance Cpl. Gregory Buckley. Staff Sgt. Cody Rhode sustained five gunshot wounds, but survived, Marine officials said. They were all members of an Afghan police advisory team in Helmand province's Garmser district, and working alongside 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, from Camp Lejeune, N.C.

* * *

Mills has argued in email traffic to other senior officers that there is another side to the case. As the commanding general of Marine Corps Forces Reserve, based in New Orleans, he is set to oversee the administrative board that Brezler, a reserve officer, will face.

In an Oct. 21 email to Amos and the Marine Corps' No. 2 officer, Gen. John Paxton, Mills told them that there was additional media coverage of Brezler's case after he ordered the Marine to stand before the board of inquiry. Mills added that an investigation had found there was more to the case than initially reported.

"The BOI is for mishandling classified material after his return from theater in 2012," Mills said. "The news casts [sic] paint a picture that the Major is being punished for passing classified info over unclass channels [to] warn Marines in theater of a possible insider threat. While its [sic] true he sounded a warning to Marines in theater that spillage was only a triggering event for an investigation into his other handling (or mishandling) of classified material in his care."

Mills' email to Amos and Paxton goes on to say that an investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service substantiated misconduct against Brezler, and found more than 100 classified documents on his personal, unclassified hard drive and thumb drive. Marine officials did not disclose those details earlier this year, citing a desire to maintain the integrity of the investigation.

"Unfortunately, Maj Brezler/civilian defense counsel has decided to try his case in the press," Mills told Amos and Paxton. "The Major is a NYC Fireman. His team has recruited Rep King from New York on his behalf and has fired up the Reserve Officers Association, among others. We have responded appropriately and will insure that Maj Brezler has a full and fair BOI."

Aspects of Mills' email closely mirrors what Col. Francis Piccoli, a spokesman for the general, told Foreign Policy.

"Pursuant to a NCIS investigation that substantiated the mishandling of classified information, Maj Brezler has been ordered to show cause for retention in the U.S. Marine Corps before a Board of Inquiry," Piccoli said. "The Marine Corps will not comment further on this case at this time because we do not want to influence the Board of Inquiry's decision-making process and/or jeopardize the due process Maj Brezler should be afforded during this administrative hearing."

The case has attracted the interest of other senior Marine officers -- on both sides of the case. Kennedy declined to comment on his Oct. 22 email to Mills, but a Marine official with knowledge of the case said he backed off supporting Brezler after he asked the major to "clarify a few points" about the case. Kennedy then decided Brezler "doesn't have a basis for defense," the Marine official said. Mills and Kennedy did not exchange messages on the subject again, the official said.

On the other side, Maj. Gen. Larry Nicholson, the commanding general of 1st Marine Division; Brig. Gen. Richard Simcock, the deputy commanding general of Marine Corps Forces Pacific; and a number of high-profile retired Marines have sent letters of support asking the board to remember Brezler's successes in combat. In an Oct. 1 letter first reported by this reporter for Marine Corps Times, Nicholson said he first met Brezler in 2006 in Fallujah, Iraq. The general credited him with launching numerous civil affairs projects in the city despite the enemy launching repeated attacks.

"Jason is a selfless, fearless and dedicated Marine Officer," Nicholson wrote. "He accomplished much, for so many, with little regard for himself. I urge board members to take into consideration these aspects of his character and prior service in deliberations."

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand also wrote to the Marine Corps on Brezler's behalf, urging leniency for the major in an Oct. 21 letter.

"I understand that Maj. Brezler received an urgent request for information from Marines in Afghanistan," she wrote. "Maj. Brezler immediately responded with the information, which could have been used to save the lives of fellow Marines. Maj. Brezler's location in Oklahoma precluded him from access and using classified military networks for the transmission of this information in an expeditious manner. When Maj. Brezler was informed that the information he forwarded might be classified, he immediately reported the security breach."

Carroll's law firm, Quinn, Emanuel, Urquhart & Sullivan, took Brezler's case pro bono. He referred comment for this story to his Nov. 22 letter to the Marine Corps. It said Brezler voluntarily consented to an Oct. 17, 2012, search of his home. Investigators found nothing, Carroll said, but Brezler called them back when he remembered he still had a hard drive he'd used in Afghanistan. Brezler had stored classified documents on them, in part because when he was deployed from late 2009 to 2010, his unit did not have enough computers, Carroll wrote.

"Hundreds of Marines make similar (or worse) mistakes than Brezler's every year," the letter from Brezler's lawyer said. He compared the treatment of his client to that of the officers deployed with 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, who continued to allow the Afghan police chief, Sarwar Jan, on the base after Brezler's attack right up until the insider attack. None of them, including Donlon, the retired deputy commandant's son, has faced any professional backlash.

That has similarities to another case this year for which Gen. Amos and other senior Marine officials were investigated by the Defense Department's inspector general. In that one, Marines complained that the Corps allowed then-Maj. James B. Conway, the son of retired Commandant Gen. James T. Conway, to be cleared in an investigation launched after a video was posted on YouTube in January 2012 depicting snipers in the younger Conway's battalion urinating on the remains of dead Taliban insurgents. Conway was not accused of any wrongdoing, but others who also were not charged with crimes were prevented from taking follow-on assignments for months. The IG found recently that Amos' decisions were reasonable given the circumstances.

Carroll, Brezler's lawyer, does not mention that case in his most recent correspondence with the Marine Corps, but he pulls no punches in defending his own client.

"The clear implication," wrote Brezler's lawyer, "Is that that the naval justice system grants generals' sons preferential treatment over those Marines whose family members are not similarly privileged."

Email traffic between Marine generals, Brezler case (Part 1) by Dan Lamothe

Photo courtesy Kevin Carroll