One of Japan’s most important military modernization efforts is the Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s (JASDF) replacement of its F-4 fleet with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Although the F-35 acquisition requires considerable funding, the JASDF also has plans to acquire new tankers and airborne early warning platforms. Furthermore, the JASDF needs to reinforce its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to keep watch over the East China Sea. If Japan chooses to pursue all three of these modernization paths (fighters, special-mission aircraft, ISR) it could create a military imbalance in East Asia while straining fiscal and human resources. Thus, Japan should focus on acquiring new systems that can be quickly deployed to the front and that cost less than conventional weapons. Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) meet these criteria well and could fully support JASDF modernization goals.
But which specific UAS should Japan acquire? What missions should they be used for? The U.S. Air Force (USAF) has developed a pilot-centric model, but the U.S. Army operates its own UAS, also equipped with sensors and weapons, using a somewhat different model. For JASDF purposes, the USAF model is more applicable, and investing in the same platforms would allow the JASDF to fully benefit from American experience and expertise. The USAF has pioneered the integration of UAS into joint warfighting operations, for example, and today’s UAS often play a decisive role in combat along with their traditional intelligence roles. This fact creates geopolitical complications for a country like Japan which must take into account Chinese and South Korean responses when UAS operations begin. Creating a culture which understands UAS concepts and operations will be paramount, both inside and outside Japan’s borders.
The JASDF could also consider the experiences of the U.S. military and other countries when working to find the best way to integrate UAS into the JASDF. In today’s U.S. military, UAS are highly desired by each of the service branches. Each service has its own concept of UAS operational utility which suits its individual missions and culture. The U.S. Army, for example, pushed to utilize UAS in the global war on terror, and both the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps now operate UAS in support of manned systems. These two branches have a culture of recognizing UAS as “trucks.” Therefore, any soldier who receives special training for UAS operations becomes a UAS operator, much as a soldier who receives training on tank operations becomes a tank operator.
In contrast, the USAF treats UAS as airplanes. The Air Force restarted its UAS program following the Department of Defense’s development of the MQ-1 Predator. The USAF has since developed UAS employment concepts shaped by its inherent knowledge of airpower, ultimately decreasing mishap rates and increasing operational readiness. When the Air Force was confronted with a difficult task, carrying out strikes against difficult time-sensitive targets (such as individual terrorists), it adapted UAS for the mission by arming them with precision weapons. The Air Force operates its UAS in the same manner as any other platform, organizing them into independent squadrons and flying them with fully-qualified pilots. Now, the Air Force is facing severe problems finding enough pilots to fly its UAS as demand outpaces capacity. Even in the face of such challenges, its pilot-based culture frowns upon assigning non-pilots as UAS operators.
The U.S. Navy, meanwhile, operates its UAS in a fashion more similar to the U.S. Army in concept, but it is also leaning forward on autonomous operations by exploring the potential of Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV). The Navy took charge of the UCAV program (X-47) after the Air Force stopped employing the X-45. If they were to activate at the front line for a SEAD mission, their concept of UAS operations would have to be changed.
As for other countries, all of the examined air forces treat their UAS like airplanes. The Royal Air Force (RAF) and French Air Force operate theirs with combined operations in mind, fundamentally similar to the U.S. military. The RAF has actually already established a UAS squadron at Creech AFB in Nevada which will transfer to bases in the United Kingdom after acquiring operational experience. Germany’s efforts to acquire the Euro Hawk provides a good lesson for the JASDF as well, as it will need to prepare for similar problems to those the Germans encountered such as artificial intelligence (AI), communications, and cost-effectiveness. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) concept of operating its unmanned MQ-4C BAMS in conjunction with its P-8 for maritime surveillance should also be taken into account, as it is thoroughly applicable to JASDF operational concerns. Israel has proceeded differently in UAS development, and today the Israeli Air Force (IAF) is highly advanced in utilizing UAS, as evidenced by its original operational concepts and excellent domestic technology. Israel’s methods are very reasonable and instructive for developing UAS capabilities in military forces.
With regards to the security environment in East Asia, the Japanese Ministry of Defense (MoD) will have to solve interoperability issues among ground, maritime, and air forces belong to Japan, the U.S., and perhaps other partner nations. The MoD must also address airspace integration and communication issues, such as satellite bandwidth. To Japan’s advantage, the current security situation would not require the JASDF to use UAS for worldwide reconnaissance missions or to assault ground targets, somewhat simplifying the operational problem. Therefore, the JASDF would benefit from emulating the U.S. Army’s model of using UAS for local sensor operations, but the JASDF should follow the U.S. Air Force model when it comes to operating high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) UAS and conducting 24/7 operations. As for the control issue (human operators vs heavy autonomy), JASDF pilots should be UAS operators. From a strategic perspective, the most important consideration moving forward should be to organize a combined ISR coordination center among allied military services. The JASDF will also need to have joint development and evaluation teams in the Joint Staff Office, like the U.S. Joint Unmanned Aerial Systems Center of Excellence (JUAS COE), to study suitable manned and unmanned (MUM) and UCAV operations in the near future.
Japan has also been forced to deal with China’s unilateral creation of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea. The JASDF must take into consideration the need to avoid an unexpected accident, such as a midair collision, between Japanese and Chinese aircraft. Thus, a risk-averting mechanism, such as a multilateral organization, is needed to resolve sensitive incidents and improve allied force interoperability.
JASDF UAS operations should be designed to work hand-in-hand with the U.S. military, especially for ISR activities. However, the JASDF would be wise to take advantage of the unique opportunity to learn from the positive aspects of different air forces around the world, such as the RAF’s C2 system, the RAAF’s operational concepts, and the IAF’s force structure. The JASDF’s UAS education and personnel support systems could almost be identical to the USAF model. At the beginning of the UAS program, qualified JASDF pilots could be cross-trained as UAS pilots. After this initial phase, the JASDF could create special education and training courses for UAS operators and establish new qualifications for UAS pilots.
Ultimately, there are three important fundamental concepts which must be addressed: doctrine, leadership and culture. First, doctrine must highlight the need to adapt to expanded missions without extra cost or overloads. When formulating UAS doctrine, Japan must include an operational concept for the future mission and alternative plans for delayed modernization programs. For example, allowing a fully-autonomous UAS such as UCAV to compensate for conventional air power. Second, in order to implement UAS effectively, leaders must be fluent in their capabilities and have a future vision for UAS contributions to war. Third, the JASDF needs to create a new UAS culture. All JASDF members should learn about UAS to help eliminate prejudices against them. The Japanese military writ large should create a UAS joint operations research team in the Joint Chief of Staff and link it with the U.S. JUAS COE to learn from U.S. military expertise and enhance interoperability. The JASDF should also expand UAS culture outside their organization and their country in order to efficiently execute ISR missions with allied forces. NATO already has these kinds of organizations, known as the Joint Capability Group on Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (JCGISR) and the Joint Capability Group on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (JCGUAV).
UAVs are spreading around the world in both advanced and developing nations. Their usefulness is exponential in Asia because there are big gaps in airpower between advanced countries and developing nations. The JASDF must be aware it is embarking on a journey into the information age, a journey in which UAS technology will be a game-changer. If the JASDF cares about new technology that provides significant utility, it needs to take immediate action. Incorporating UAS into the force will be the first challenge as the JASDF adapts for the future.
Colonel Ryoji Shirai is a liaison officer in the US Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s Strategic Study Group. He most recently served as a supervisor of Defense Policies and Programs Division, Air Staff Office, Ministry of Defense, Japan. He is a Senior Pilot with over 2100 hours in the T-4, T-38, and F-15J, and he is qualified as a test pilot. His most recent educational experience was as an international security fellow at the Brookings Institute in 2013.
This paper is based on a larger study published by the Brookings Institute in September 2014. Read the full report here.