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UK and Japan discuss cooperation on next ‘optionally manned’ 6th Generation Aircraft

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The discussion about what ‘Global Britain’ means and whether the UK will remain a ‘tier one’ military power have a new data point to factor in as plans for a next generation combat aircraft “Tempest” come to light. In the need to look beyond the era of the Eurofighter, could the UK and Japan cement their quasi alliance with joint development of a 6th generation combat aircraft?

The UK and Japan have several defence interests in common, including the need to remain top tier and inter-operable allies with the United States while being prepared to defend their interests independently. In addition, both are endowed with cutting edge technological skill levels, but draw on a smaller population base for military service. In air war, no matter how many planes you can build you still have to train enough pilots to fly them. When it comes to modern aircraft, that is no mean feat compared to WWII when some pilots flew Spitfires into combat with less than 100 flying hours in their log books. Flight training for the latest 5th generation planes is measured in years rather than hours.

This is where unmanned aircraft come in.

For quasi allies like Japan and the UK, joint development of next generation aircraft is the obvious way to go. It plays to their strengths (leaders in technology) and mitigates for their weakness (scarcity of ready pilot replacement). It also reflects the level of trust needed to sustain a long-term strategic commitment. How many other nations capable of this level of military technological development can rely on one-another to stay a common strategic course over the next several decades in close alliance with the United States?

Franz-Stephan Gady writes in the Diplomat that :

Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera confirmed last month that the Japan and the UK had “an exchange of opinions” on the Tempest Future Fighter Aircraft project noting that London is “looking for international joint development partners.” Japan has also been looking for international partners to collaborate with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and various Japanese sub-contractors on a new fighter aircraft, tentatively named the (F-3) Future Fighter Program. The Japan Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) has a requirement for up to 100 new stealth fighter jets.

Japan’s Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Agency and the UK Ministry of Defense first began exploring options for jointly developing a new stealth fighter jet in 2017. The collaboration agreement stipulated that Japan and the UK will exchange information about advanced aviation technology and also conduct a joint study on the feasibility of co-developing the new fighter aircraft in the coming years, I explained in March 2017. Japan and the UK are already cooperating on other aspects of military aviation. Both countries, in cooperation with other European partners, are co-developing a new air-to-air missile. The prototype of this Joint New Air-to-Air Missile (JNAAM) is expected to be built by the end of 2018.

The design concept showcased at the 2018 Farnborough International Airshow in mid-July “described a need for “scalable autonomy,” which would imply an optionally manned capability, as well as a potentially artificial intelligence-driven set of flight and mission systems to reduce strain on the pilot and speed up their decision making processes. In addition, the goal is for a single manned Tempest to be able to issue orders to multiple autonomous pilotless versions, a concept commonly known as a “loyal wingman,” or otherwise control swarms of other, smaller drones.” (link)

Jane’s 360  confirmed that the UK and Japan are exploring collaboration in this area:

Citing Japanese defence minister Itsunori Onodera, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) in Tokyo confirmed in a recent statement that Japan and the UK have had an “exchange of opinions” about the possibility of a joint air combat project to meet the JASDF’s requirements. In addition, in acknowledging that the UK is “looking for international joint development partners” in the Tempest programme, Onodera indicated that additional future discussions on the project are planned. “As for how the UK’s recently announced strategy will affect the possibility of a joint project between Japan and the UK, we hope to discern that through discussions and exchanges of opinions with the UK moving forward,” he said.

Watch this space.

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