The JASDF, RAAF and the USAF should team up to collaborate on Loyal Wingman Programme to countering China

The US, Australia and Japan need to expand their collaboration on defense technologies in the future, with a specific focus on technologies that can help counter the rise of China.

Concept art from the Air Force Research Lab showing a drone swarm that the service could potentially use in the future. (AFRL)

There three areas are at the center of the intensifying U.S.-China military-technological competition. They are key to challenging or upholding military balances and stabilizing imbalances in and across key domain-area competitions — strike versus air and missile defense or undersea — on which regional and, over time, global security is at least partly based

Military vehicles carrying missiles march at the Tiananmen Square during a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two, in Beijing, China, September 3, 2015. China’s President Xi Jinping and world leader inspected 12,000 troops marching across the square. ( The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images )

Specifically, four project areas that both fit into US, Australian and Japan’s regional interests, while also matching industrial capabilities:

Swarming technology and the loyal wingman: For several years the Pentagon has been investing R&D funding into the development of drones that can be slaved to a fighter jet, providing a “loyal wingman” controlled by the one pilot. Drone swarms are another area of heavy investment. Both concepts fit for Japan, whose Ministry of Defense expressed interest in both concepts going back as far as 2016.

Unmanned underwater vehicles and anti-submarine warfare capabilities: China has invested heavily in submarines over the last decade, both manned and unmanned. The U.S. has also begun investing in UUV capabilities, but while Japan’s IHI has developed a domestic UUV, the MoD has yet to go all in on the capability. The authors note it is a logical area of collaboration.

AI-enabled synthetic training environments: The U.S. and Japan ran a joint synthetic training exercise in 2016, but the authors would like to see development expanded in the future. “Given both countries’ need to accelerate training, their shared competency in machine learning and virtual and augmented reality, and a highly fractured simulation and training market, there is potential for a collaborative program to develop a synthetic simulation and training capability, to stress the specific operational contingencies to which US and Japanese forces will have to respond,” they write.

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Counter-unmanned systems: The entire world seems to be investing in weapons to counter unmanned systems, but the authors see a solid spot for the two nations to find workable technologies together. Japan’s acquisition group is currently testing a “high-power microwave generation system” for this mission.

Japan’s modernization priorities are best viewed through a defensive lens, designed to protect the island nation. That’s a contrast to America’s posture in the region, which tends more towards force projection. In addition, Japan lags in military space and cyber operations compared to the U.S., making cross-domain collaboration challenging in several areas.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Japanese Defense Minister Tarō Konō hold a bilateral press briefing at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Jan. 14, 2020. (DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class James K. Lee)
Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Japanese Defense Minister Tarō Konō hold a bilateral press briefing at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Jan. 14, 2020. (DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class James K. Lee)

Putting aside the internal issues, any collaboration among the US, Australia and Japan has to be considered through the lens it will be see in Beijing and, to a lesser extent, Seoul.

“Even marginal differences in perception produce limits to the parameters of US-Australia-Japan joint development of, and coordination on, military capabilities. Especially provocative programs like joint hypersonic-missile development will be viewed as escalatory, and will likely generate a response from China,Russia, and/or North Korea that could complicate other trade or geopolitical interests that go beyond Northeast Asia,” the authors warn, noting that China could attempt to exert more pressure on the ASEAN nations as a counterweight.

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