Drone Wingmen for Japanese Fighter Jocks
Combat Support Unmanned Aircraft robots could fight alongside F-3 manned fighters
The Japanese military wants a drone wingman to accompany its future F-3 fighters into combat starting in the 2030s. The concept — similar to the U.S. military’s own “Loyal Wingman” drone initiative — and could help Japanese fighter pilots make up for the numerical superiority of potential enemies.
The Japanese defense ministry’s Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency — its main weapons-purchasing body — included the so-called “Combat Support Unmanned Aircraft” in a technology roadmap first disclosed by trade publication Aviation Week in late September 2016.
The Japanese defense ministry’s Technical Research and Development Institute began talking about a robotic wingman as early as 2010. In 2011, the defense ministry tested a small, jet-propelled drone that launches from an F-15 and lands autonomously.
Japan will “acquire high-autonomy technology to realize an unmanned wingman for the F-3 in 15 to 20 years,” the roadmap explained, according to Aviation Week. The Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency said it wants to test the Combat Support Unmanned Aircraft as early as 2029.
The F-3, a possible development of the ATD-X technology demonstrator that flew its first test flight in April 2016, could enter service in the 2030s as a partial replacement for the Japanese air force’s F-15s. The Japanese air force is also buying an initial 42 F-35 stealth fighters from the United States.
Drone wingman concept. Japanese ministry of defense art
A graphic in the planning document depicts a conceptual F-3 fighter flying in formation with three small, stealthy, jet-powered drones, the F-3’s pilot communicating with the robotic planes via datalink.
The graphic implies that the Combat Support Unmanned Aircraft could perform several roles, perhaps simultaneously. It could function as a sensor platform, an airborne arsenal and a decoy.
In the artwork, one drone flies ahead of the F-3, apparently scanning with its sensors and relaying targeting data back the manned fighter. A second Combat Support Unmanned Aircraft fires an air-to-air missiles. A third robot draws an enemy air-to-air missile away from the F-3.
As an arsenal and sensor platform, the Japanese drone is similar in concept to the U.S. military’s Loyal Wingman. The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratories launched Loyal Wingman in mid-2015 with a formal request for information to the aerospace industry. “Autonomy technologies can enhance future operations and capabilities in contested and denied environments,” the RFI explained.
QF-16. U.S. Air Force photo
“Technologies are also required to seamlessly integrate the pilot and his/her aircraft with the autonomous unmanned aircraft to allow them to operate as a team for combat effectiveness.”
Deputy defense secretary Bob Work has championed Loyal Wingman. “You take an F-16 and make it totally unmanned,” Work said in March 2016. “The F-16 is a fourth-generation fighter, and pair it with an F-35, a fifth-generation battle network node, and have those two operating together.”
Not coincidentally, the U.S. Air Force began operating pilotless QF-16 target drones in late September 2016.
With sophisticated sensors and weapons and “smart” control algorithms, the Combat Support Unmanned Aircraft and Loyal Wingman could help Japan and the United States to address a growing fighter gap with China.
To be clear — the U.S. military and Japan together possess many more fighters than China does. But in a possible conflict over the East and South China Seas, the Chinese have the advantage of more and closer airfields, meaning they keep more fighters airborne over a particular battle zone than the United States and Japan could.
Moreover, defense planners in Tokyo are worried that Japan’s new F-35s and F-3s will enter service too late to sustain Japan’s roughly 300-strong fighter fleet as older F-15s and F-2s age out. The U.S. Air Force faces a similar challenge replacing hundreds of old F-16s with new F-35s.
Delays in acquiring new fighters could exacerbating Japan and the United States’ fighter mismatch with China. Drone wingmen could help bridge that gap, assuming they’re affordable and not too difficult to support on the ground. And assuming they work.