Of Course Japan Rejected A Plan For A New Unmanned Fighter Because It Makes No Sense

The unmanned fighter proposal was just one of several options that Tokyo has studied as a replacement for the Mitsubishi F-2.

Satoshi Akatsuka via Lockheed Martin/Code One

An unmanned fighter was among the options Japan considered as the country prepares to embark on a project to replace its fleet of indigenous Mitsubishi F-2 fighter jets. The drone fighter proposal was reportedly suggested as a cost-saving measure, by Liberal Democratic Party politician Taro Kono, who stood down as Japan’s defense chief last month. 

Japan’s Kyodo News agency was first to report that Tokyo had considered developing a new unmanned combat air vehicle earlier this year. Its sources indicated that Japan’s Ministry of Defense has since scrapped the drone idea. The story notes that the plan was abandoned following the government’s decision not to deploy the U.S.-developed Aegis Ashore land-based air defense system, but exactly how, or if, the two are directly connected is unclear.

Kyodo described the proposed unmanned aircraft as a “fighter,” suggesting that Japanese officials were exploring plans for a high-performance advanced unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV). However, the outlet offered no specific details about the requirements for this drone.

It’s worth noting that Japan currently lacks an unmanned aerial vehicle even in the same general class as the MQ-9 Reaper armed drone. Japan does have plans to acquire three examples of the RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 30 drone, but separate questions have been raised about the future of that effort after the U.S. Air Force proposed retiring its own Global Hawk Block 30 fleet.

U.S. AIR FORCE/CAPT. AARON CHURCH

A U.S. Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk, assigned to the 319th Operations Group, Detachment 1, Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, lands at Yokota Air Base, Japan, May 30, 2020, for a rotational deployment.

This is not the first time that a Japanese drone fighter has been suggested. It’s not entirely clear why the proposal was rejected in this case, either. Details of any such planned unmanned platform remain extremely scarce. 

The original decision to at least look at the viability of an unmanned fighter was based on a plan to reduce the costs involved in developing a new warplane. This could have been an ambitious aspiration, however, depending on the particular capabilities that the proposed drone was supposed to offer. 

The Japanese tried unsuccessfully for years to acquire a fleet of F-22 Raptor stealth fighters. The country’s authorities have not given up a desire for an aircraft with similarly advanced capabilities, either developed entirely domestically or with the help of foreign partners. This could have influenced the requirements for the proposed unmanned alternative. There was also reported skepticism that the country would be able to indigenously develop the required autonomous technologies.

U.S. AIR FORCE/YASUO OSAKABE

An F-22 Raptor from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska takes off at Yokota Air Base, Japan, July 17, 2018.

In addition, Japan has already invested around $332 million in developing the stealthy X-2 Shinshin demonstrator, one example of which has been built and test-flown. The fact that the X-2 combines a stealthy airframe with twin thrust-vectoring low-bypass turbofans suggested that a significant degree of agility was a key concern for Japan’s future fighter.

It also reflects the X-2’s origins as a potential starting place for pursuing an indigenous alternative to the Raptor. Concept artwork of a follow-on, production-ready design to the Shinshin — informally dubbed F-3 — have also included similarities with the F-22, as well as with proposed sixth-generation U.S. fighter studies.

AP PHOTO/EMILY WANG

The X-2 demonstrator in a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries hangar. 

In the meantime, Japan has also ordered significant numbers of F-35s, with plans to purchase as many as 147 of the Joint Strike Fighters, in total. This includes more than 100 F-35As primarily to replace its fleet of aging F-4EJ Phantom II aircraft, plus 42 short take-off and vertical landing F-35Bs to equip its Izumo-class carriers.

U.S. AIR FORCE/STAFF SGT. DEANA HEITZMAN

Japan Air Self-Defense Force members and 35th Fighter Wing and Naval Air Facility-Misawa leadership watch the arrival of the first JASDF F-35A at Misawa Air Base, Japan, January 26, 2018

Beyond that, Japan is also investing heavily in around half of its fleet of around 200 F-15J air superiority fighter jets, which are planned to be upgraded to the so-called Japanese Super Interceptor (JSI) standard after U.S. government approval was granted in October 2019. As The War Zone discussed at the time, the F-15J upgrade will include new active electronically scanned array radars, improved mission computers, updated electronic warfare suites, and more.

U.S. AIR FORCE/TECH. SGT. BENJAMIN W. STRATTON

Japan Air Self-Defense Force pilots race to two F-15J Eagles during a scramble demonstration at Chitose Air Base, Japan, April 14, 2017.

All of this existing investment in manned aircraft efforts may have impacted the final decision to abandon the UCAV option. An advanced unmanned aircraft would certainly have been in some degree of competition for funding as time went on.

In contrast to regional rivals China and Russia, and even its allies, Japan has appeared more reluctant to embark on the development of unmanned combat air vehicles, which don’t have a clear role to play within the country’s primarily defensive military posture, at least when it comes to fast jet capabilities. It’s not clear if a strong lobby for manned versus unmanned aircraft exists within Japan’s Defense Ministry, as it does in other countries, which may have influenced the decision to reject the UCAV proposal.

Whether or not the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) will receive an F-3 or a manned fighter co-developed with a foreign nation, also remains to be seen. Developing and fielding a manned stealth fighter has historically shown to be a costly and time-consuming proposition, which seems to be what prompted this recent consideration of the UCAV option in the Japanese Ministry of Defense. While partnering with a foreign country could help defray some of those costs, they could still be onerous for Japan. Japanese authorities have talked in the past about spending as much as $50 billion over an indeterminate amount of time on developing and buying a new manned stealth fighter.

Japan’s problems with the fourth-generation F-2 itself means the country has to be well aware of these potential pitfalls. A derivative of the F-16 Viper, the F-2 was vastly more expensive than contemporary versions of that jet, owing in part to the Japanese plane’s active electronically-scanned array radar, the first operational unit of its kind, and the small production volume. The expected industrial offsets largely failed to materialize, as well. 

U.S. AIR FORCE/SENIOR AIRMAN DANIEL SNIDER

Japan Air Self-Defense Force Mitsubishi F-2As and U.S. Air Force F-16s on the flight line during Red Flag-Alaska 19-2 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. 

It may turn out that the most cost-effective route for Japan would be to simply expand on the high-low capability mix offered by the F-35s and F-15JSIs that it is working to acquire already. Both of these aircraft remain in production and are widely supported. There are also various upgrade programs in the works for both types that could make them even more attractive options down the line as far as new purchases go.

In reality, cost-effective lower and middle-end stealthy UCAVs will be available off-the-shelf in the not so distant future and will be primarily designed to be teamed with Japan's existing fast jet assets in the loyal wingman role. They could also be used in some roles autonomously, as well. But considering air defense and anti-surface warfare are the two primary roles of the JASDF's tactical jet fleet, and especially the F-2, keeping a human in the cockpit, for now, isn't just a good idea, when it comes to the air defense mission, it really is a necessity. 

The homeland air sovereignty mission remains one that will be best executed by manned platforms for the foreseeable future. Japan is dealing with the burden of having to perform an extremely high number of air defense scrambles throughout the year, often to intercept Russian and Chinese aircraft near Japanese territory, some of which is disputed. In 2019 alone, Japan had to scramble nearly one thousand times, almost all of which were to intercept peer adversary aircraft. Such a high number of scrambles would place a substantial strain on any country's tactical fighter fleet and executing these missions is not the place of an unmanned system.

A drone can potentially have major advantages in the anti-surface warfare role, but that would be in lieu of other capabilities that the country needs. There are other answers to the anti-surface warfare role as well, including acquiring less complex high-endurance unmanned maritime patrol aircraft and longer-range anti-ship missiles, along with better joint force integration and networking. While the F-2s may focus on this role today, also being capable of the full gamut of air-to-air combat is highly beneficial and a future multi-role platform will be equally as prized, especially as a smaller fleet of JASDF F-15s gets saturated with additional missions

Boeing Australia

Boeing Australia's loyal wingman drone would be an excellent augmentation of Japan's manned fighter capabilities, but it would not replace them outright.

During wartime, the flexibility of multi-role tactical jets could prove essential in defending the island chain and an indigenous or imported loyal wingman drone could drastically help in this mission and a number of others, but replacing manned fighters in this defensive air-to-air role isn't realistic at this time for Japan. This is especially true when you factor in the opportunity cost of an entire fast jet fleet. Even the long-range advantages that some advanced UCAVs possess are less of a necessity for Japan considering the country's unique geographical, geopolitical, and strategic realities, as well as its prevailing defensive military posture.

In the end, Japan may be best off in developing its own loyal wingman drone to complement its existing fighters and those it can buy off-the-shelf. It is a far less ambitious task than developing a new high-end fighter or even an advanced UCAV, but one that will have many similar industrial and force multiplication benefits and such an exercise can lead to the fielding of more advanced UCAVs in the future as the technology evolves.  

As it sits now, the JASDF hopes to replace the F-2 with whatever comes next around 2035.

Contact the authors: thomas@thedrive.com, joe@thedrive.com