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Japan and US to Develop UAVs as 'Wingmen' for Next-Gen Fighter Jets

The UAVs will support fighter jets under development by Japan, UK, and Italy. Collaborative aircraft are increasingly viewed as a "game-changer" in combat.



A rendering of the next-generation fighter aircraft to be jointly developed by Japan, the United Kingdom, and Italy. (Provided by the Japanese Ministry of Defense)

Japan and the United States have agreed to collaborate on technological research for the development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). They aim to integrate the UAVs with Japan's next-generation fighter jets scheduled for deployment by 2035. The decision was officially announced on December 22, 2023.

Based on the agreement, a meeting of the Defense Science and Technology Cooperation Group will take place in 2024. The group was established in September 2023 by the US Department of Defense and the Japanese defense ministry's Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency. At the meeting, the group is expected to discuss the promotion of bilateral technological cooperation, including in the realm of UAVs. 

A Pentagon official overseeing technology affairs explained to The Sankei Shimbun that the group aims to leverage the knowledge and relevant strengths of both countries for protection and deterrence against aggression.

Italy's Defense Minister Guido Crosetto, Japan's Defense Minister Minoru Kihara, and the UK's Defense Minister Grant Shapps signed a treaty establishing an international organization for the joint development of the advanced fighter jet. Ichigaya, Tokyo December 14, 2023. (©Sankei by Keita Ozawa)

Autonomous Decision-Making

The next-generation fighter jet expected to be supported by these UAVs is being jointly developed by Japan, the United Kingdom, and Italy. The first one is slated to be deployed by 2035. By supporting combat operations with autonomous decision-making, the UAVs will act as wingmen to the fighter jets.

The use of fighter jets and unmanned aerial vehicles in coordinated operations is viewed as a "game-changer" that could reshape the nature of combat. The US government had been expressing support for the Japan-UK-Italy fighter jet project, exploring ways to cooperate with Japan to develop UAVs to act as wingmen for the fighter jets.

Japan and the US concluded that collaboration leveraging each other's advanced technologies could result in the development of equipment capable of ensuring air superiority against potential aggressor nations.

Fighter Jet Shortage

Both governments emphasized that this collaborative research will enable joint responses to future threats. The project was on the agenda of the Security Consultative Committee (2+2), which involves ministers responsible for foreign and defense affairs.

The UAVs are expected to gather information through radars and sensors to assist fighter jet pilots. They are also expected to engage in attacks on adversaries. Their deployment is believed to minimize pilot casualties. The UAVs will also help compensate for the shortage of fighter jets compared to China, which possesses a substantial air force.



(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Kazuyuki Sakamoto

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