'Gamera' radar leads defense of Japanese airspace

March 28, 2012

By HISASHI ISHIMATSU / Staff Writer

On a tiny island in the East China Sea, about 200 people work around a piece of equipment named after a movie monster. This is the Shimokoshikijima Sub Base of the Air Self-Defense Force, and it is increasingly being considered a crucial piece in defending the nation’s airspace.

As China continues to increase its military spending and North Korea remaining unpredictable under its new leader, Kim Jong Un, the warning and control radar operated by the ASDF at its various bases in Kyushu have become increasingly important.

The Shimokoshikijima Sub Base is located off the coast of Kagoshima Prefecture. The island has a population of about 2,800 and is about two hours by ferry from Kushikino Port.

The main piece of equipment at the sub base is the stationary three-dimensional radar, the J/FPS-5. It is commonly called the "Gamera radar" because the radar cover looks like the shell of the giant flying turtle of cinema fame.

On April 5, 2009, that radar tracked the Taepodong-2 ballistic missile fired by North Korea.

The radar system also plays a key role in Japan's ballistic missile defense system, which started to be put in place in 2003. It was first installed on Shimokoshikijima in fiscal 2008, with subsequent installations at Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture, Ominato in Aomori Prefecture and Yozadake in Okinawa Prefecture, which will be completed by the end of the current fiscal year.

The rotatable Gamera radar is a hexagonal structure as tall as a seven-story building.

The eight platoons at the base in charge of surveillance, communications, base operations and health and welfare work around the clock. Reporters are not allowed within the radar or the facility that operates it for national security reasons.

"We cannot have any interruption in the collection of data by the radar," the base commander, Lt. Col. Tomohiro Isozuka, 49, said.

The greatest threat to the sub base is an attack by special forces. For that reason, tensions around the sub base increased after reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had died in December.

In February 1997, an incident occurred on Shimokoshikijima that sent shockwaves through the ASDF. Twenty Chinese tried to illegally enter the island. Although they were not a military threat and ended up in custody, if they had damaged even part of the radar facility, that could have crippled Japan's air defense setup.

Staff Sgt. Taichi Hirozane, 26, who handles base security, said: "The geography and environment is not favorable. This is difficult work physically, but we are able to show the results of the difficult training that we have undertaken."

The average age of base members is 35.2 years, meaning many are under 30. Most share rooms in the living quarters.

One difficulty for the young members is not being able to do what others their age are enjoying, given the isolated location of the base.

Airman 1st Class Takefumi Yasuda, 28, of the surveillance platoon, recently broke up with his girlfriend. He feels one reason was that he was unable to get a day off for such important events as her birthday. Still, he is not discouraged.

"I am proud to be able to handle the most advanced radar," he said.

Staff Sgt. Naoki Matsumori, 24, has worked at the base since he was 18. He enjoys drinking shochu made from potatoes with his fellow members during his days off.

"I want to become an SDF member who can demonstrate skills under various environments," he said.

The radar systems are designed to not only keep watch for ballistic missiles, but also suspicious aircraft nearing Japanese airspace.

Situated on the northern edge of Tsushima island off Nagasaki Prefecture is the Unijima Sub Base, from where Busan in South Korea is visible to the naked eye. About 160 ASDF members work around the clock here as well, searching for aircraft around the area.

The base can only be approached by a special boat. Small bunker windows are visible around the base, remnants of the surveillance posts used by the former Imperial Navy to keep a watch on enemy ships that navigated through the Tsushima Strait. Behind those bunkers is the spherical J/FPS-3 radar system.

Information about aircraft that attempt to enter Japan's air-defense identification zone without prior notice is immediately transmitted to the direction center for the ASDF West Air Area in Kasuga, Fukuoka Prefecture. If the possibility exists of a violation of Japanese airspace, instructions are issued from the direction center to have fighter jets scrambled from the Tsuiki Base in Chikujo, Fukuoka Prefecture, or the Nyutabaru Base in Shintomi, Miyazaki Prefecture.

Such scrambles have sharply increased in number in recent years. In January, the Defense Ministry announced that in the third quarter of the current fiscal year, fighter jets were scrambled 335 times, 45 more than the same quarter of the previous year.

The number of times jets were scrambled against Chinese aircraft was 48, up about threefold and the most since such statistics started being compiled in fiscal 2002.

There has been a sharp rise in the number of jets scrambled from bases in Okinawa Prefecture that make up the Combined South Area.

"It will be important to spot enemy aircraft or aircraft of unknown national origin from farther away in order to prevent their approach into Japanese airspace," said Maj. Mitsuo Haruki, 48, deputy commander of the Unijima Sub Base.

A popular way to spend days off is fishing. Fish caught from lines dropped from the pier often end up on the dinner table. Some base members will go to fast food joints located in the center of the island about two hours away for hamburgers.

"Because there are no convenience stores on Tsushima, we cannot buy what we want when we want,” Airman 1st Class Kazuhei Nakakihara, 22, said. “However, one thing I enjoy is eating the fish together with my seniors who caught it."

Airman 1st Class Yuichiro Kuma, 24, said, "I am extremely proud to be able to handle part of the important duty of national defense."

By HISASHI ISHIMATSU / Staff Writer
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  • The Air Self-Defense Force's stationary three-dimensional radar, the J/FPS-5, on Shimokoshikijima island in the East China Sea in July 2009. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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