The Japanese Ministry of Defense has released new details about its plans for future unmanned aircraft that would fly in supporting roles, aiding piloted fighters in the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force, or JASDF.
Specifically, JASDF is hoping to add two distinct craft to its fleet: unmanned wingmen that would fly in formation with and receive commands from a pilot in a conventional fighter, and a high-flying ballistic-missile defense (BMD) aircraft that would use sensor arrays to track missile threats.
Given the difficulty of programming an autonomous system with the aerial maneouvres necessary for successful air-to-air engagements, most countries have focused on air-to-surface platforms for unmanned aircraft. Japan, however, seems to be more optimistic and hopes the unmanned craft can fly alongside its advanced stealth fighter aircraft, the F-3, which is currently under development with a planned production date in 2027. Japan’s F-3s could be updated to control the unmanned wingmen, which would automatically execute maneuvers with the manned fighter and take commands from the flight leader, such as attacking designated targets or searching specific areas. The drones would then autonomously decide the best way to execute the pilot’s orders.
Though programming the unmanned wingmen will require very advanced AI systems, there is one big advantage to having an unmanned aircraft in a dogfighting role: It could pull maneuvers that a human pilot could never withstand with reflexes that a human pilot could never dream of. The drones could also intercept incoming missile threats and neutralize them through maneuvering, electromagnetic countermeasures, or as a last result, impacting the missile. Sacrificing the drone to protect the pilot would only be a last resort considering the unmanned wingmen would be much more expensive than a missile.
The unmanned wingmen would be particularly useful for the F-3, which is currently designed to be a fighter with high endurance and heavy armaments at the expense of maneuverability. One possible configuration is a single unmanned wingman acting as a sensor hub while another in the formation carries weapons, according to Aviation Week.Another possibility is to have the manned fighter hang back as the information hub while multiple armed autonomous wingmen fly ahead to pursue targets.
The ballistic-missile detector aircraft would likely be a high-altitude aircraft capable of sustained flight. There was no mention of the BMD carrying weapons, but it would instead use infrared sensors and other detecting systems to locate and track ballistic missile threats.
Power and propulsion systems for the unmanned aircraft are scheduled to begin in 2019, according to Aviation Week. JASDF envisions a highly maneuverable, stealth aircraft with morphing wing configurations for the drone wingmen. The BMD design, on the other hand, appears to have a slender-wing configuration for high-flying over great distances. Japan has also expressed interested in developing drones that rely on satellite relay communication, similar to the United States’ General Atomics MQ-1 Predator and the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, but developing the unmanned wingmen and BMD aircraft has been given financial priority.
Japan’s interest in advanced air warfare systems comes with increased defense spending to counter Chinese aggressions in the South China Sea and other parts of the Pacific arena. So if Japan has its way, its future F-3 fighters will fly in formation with a host of drones for enhanced combat capabilities.
Source: Popular Mechanics