The Future of Trans-Pacific Airpower Interoperability: Preparation for a Growing Anti-Access/Area Denial Environment


The year 2010 is an important milestone for the U.S.-Japan Alliance, marking 50 years since the signing of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. Looking forward, the recently released U.S. 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Report (QDR) emphasizes the importance of working closely with allies, especially as regional security environments become more complex. In turn, the Government of Japan (GOJ) is currently developing new National Defense Program Guidance (NDPG), which will deliver its 10-year strategic plan.

Given the concurrent themes that will likely be reflected in each document, interoperability between the military forces of the U.S. and Japan will again be at the center of how these nations might build a closer and more effective strategic partnership. This becomes all the more important given a growing anti-access/area denial (A2AD) environment and increasingly contested global and regional commons.

The key question, though, is not whether these two nations’ forces “should” build greater interoperability, but whether they “can,” and, if so, “how”?

Early concepts of interoperability were predicated largely on the need to own and employ the same types of weapons systems.  This military cooperation served as a useful deterrent during the Cold War, but luckily was never tested in the cauldron of actual conflict.  However, Operation DESERT STORM (ODS), the Balkans air campaigns, and the more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have witnessed the operational use of coalition airpower and highlighted both advantages and key lessons learned on critical gaps in capabilities and more importantly, doctrine and policy. 

As the leading innovator in terms of network-centric operations, the U.S. is unintentionally establishing a widening gap between its capabilities and those of its partners.  It is unlikely that U.S. allies will be able to address this shortfall in the foreseeable future, placing doubts on their ability to maintain the interoperability necessary to meet the QDR’s calls for greater cooperation with key allies. 

An analysis of the current situation, as well as lessons learned from the U.S. air partnership with other forces, including the British Royal Air Force (RAF), the French Air Force (FAF), the German Air Force (GAF), and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), can provide crucial lessons learned for how the U.S. Air Force (USAF)-Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) relationship might more effectively solve the challenges of developing greater interoperability. Despite a number of capability gaps between those allied air forces and the USAF, they have been able to improve levels of interoperability while simultaneously utilizing their own niche capabilities and unique strategic environments.

This analysis highlights that:

(1) All allied air forces anticipate that the capability gap between their forces and the USAF will continue to widen.  Allied air forces need to prioritize mission areas and functions that can enhance interoperability in a practical manner. 

(2) Political considerations and national caveats will invariably limit the ability of allied air forces to conduct coalition missions and roles that will be entirely complementary to USAF operations, but they do not preclude interoperability.

(3) A three pillared approach composed of doctrinal alignment, capability development, and trust-building appears to be the most effective approach to strengthening interoperability.

(4) Information sharing at all levels remains key to interoperability. 

(5) “Decisive interoperability-enhancer(s)” should be identified.  It is possible that this equipment will be mandated as a minimum theatre entry standard for future coalition operations involving the USAF. 

(6) A rational approach to more effective commonality and connectivity will reinforce interoperability without undermining the national industrial base or mandating unnecessary investment.

(7) Standardization is extremely beneficial. 

(8) Training/exercises under likely scenarios and based on realistic assumptions are key to improving skill and enhancing mutual trust. 

(9) Co-investment on resource-consuming projects leads to cost-effectiveness. 

(10) Interoperability-specific multinational frameworks, as exemplified by the Air and Space Interoperability Council (ASIC), are very effective.

In sum, a “plug-and-play” architecture is the essential function that must be pursued to provide the “bridge-gap” to interoperability.  But technology is not the only important element to developing and maintaining interoperability; equally important is the ability to build enduring human relationships between each force to ensure mutual respect and trust. 

The JASDF certainly has constitutional constraints that limit its ability to mirror approaches taken by other allied air forces in such areas as extra-territorial operations. In the Asia-Pacific Theatre, however, closely coordinated air operations and air-surface (maritime) operations must be emphasized over other approaches. When considering the characteristics of A2AD environments, ballistic missile defense (BMD) and cruise missile defense (CMD) should be prioritized. The three-pillared approach, consisting of doctrinal alignment, capability development, and trust-building, may provide a useful framework for effectively enhancing interoperability. In particular, the Sensor-to-Shooter (STS) loop, as well as the Sensor-to-Actor (STA) loop, needs to be underscored.

Given these concerns, the following recommendations aim to build greater interoperability for the benefit of both parties:

Multilateral efforts: Stand up an ASIC-like “multilateral interoperability council in the Pacific region,” with primary responsibility for:

-Developing a shared strategic vision for the region, to include the appointment of JASDF and other allied nation officers to USAF strategic studies groups and following the RAF model of populating key Pentagon offices with RAF officers. 

-Developing a common vision of scenarios that may require a bilateral or multilateral response in the coming decades and share strategic and operational requirements in the air and space domains.

-Identification of critical domains, mission areas, and functions where efforts may be prioritized to effectively enhance interoperability.

-Developing a multilateral interoperability roadmap that establishes key milestones for progress.

-Standardizing operational procedures, and concepts.  In terms of coalition operations, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) standards may provide a sound basis for development.

U.S. Efforts:

-Release critical interoperability-related technology, especially those of a “plug and play” nature, to key allies in a timely manner.

-Allow allied participation in interoperability-related studies and ongoing and future projects.

Japanese Efforts:

-Accelerate the fulfillment of network connectivity with key assets. 

-Secure information released by the U.S. Government (USG).

-Classify those assets that are interoperable and non-interoperable to allow for more effective allocation of resources within a limited budget.

-Consider balancing capability and the industrial base (indigenous production or import foreign equipment appropriately).

-Commit to parallel interoperability-related studies and projects to the greatest possible.

Policy can change quickly in response to crises, but it takes a long time to develop the actual capabilities, mutual trust, and joint vision and doctrine upon which effective action is built. Therefore, if we care about our alliance and the interoperability that underscores its utility, we need to take action, and we need to do it right away.