Japan wants to equip its air force with drones that can buddy up with human fighter pilots. The aircraft, known as Combat Support Unmanned Aircraft, will roll out within the next few decades and give support to existing pilots by firing at enemies and drawing attention away from traditional jets.

Plans for the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force’s (JASDF) new fleet of unmanned drone fighters have been seen by Aviation Week. Essentially, F-3 fighters would have a certain level of control over the planes, giving it general tasks like “hit that target,” but the plane would work out for itself how to achieve this. Data linkups between the F-3 and other unmanned aircraft will allow them to coordinate on attacks and maneuvers.

The plan also includes a ballistic-missile defense (BMD) system, a drone designed to carry sensors rather than weapons. These drones fall into the category of drones that use satellite uplink to operate, according to the JASDF’s Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency (ATLA). While countries like the U.S. have previously employed aircraft like these, until now Japan’s fleet has largely worked on line-of-sight communications. Satellite uplink drones will join fully pilot-free aircraft like the weapon-carrying machines in the JASDF’s top research priorities for the coming decades.

The weapon-equipped drone system in action.
The weapon-equipped drone system in action.

Work has been picking up pace. Initially envisioned at the turn of the decade, the Technical Research and Development Institute (TRDI) responsible for the JASDF’s plans thought the weapon-equipped aircraft would enter service in the 2040s. While the BMD aircraft is expected to enter service in the next 15 to 20 years, the missile-carrying aircraft is now predicted to start working with pilots between 2035 and 2040.

Drone autonomy is a key feature of forthcoming military operation plans. The U.S.’s DARPA research lab has developed a drone intelligence system that can allow the machines to travel in a flock unaided. Although it’s unlikely these machines would ever gain full autonomy to choose whether to kill in combat, higher levels of unaided operation will enable systems like Japan’s and the U.S.’s to avoid interference from signal jammers.

Photos via Japanese Defense Ministry, Star Wars Battlefront/YouTube (1, 2)