Defending East Asia – moving towards a virtual alliance

Reprinted from Asia Times

by Stephen Bryen

No aircraft, no air defenses and no troops are required in computerized war games, but it helps the players plan for the real thing

Perhaps the biggest problem in East Asia today is that at least one major player, Taiwan has been left out of the equation for political reasons.  Taiwan has a modern jet fighter force of 286 planes, compared to Japan’s Air Self Defense Force of 373 fighter and South Korea’s 466 fighter aircraft.  The US Air Force also deploys 130 front line fighters in Japan at Misawa and Kadena (Okinawa) not counting US Marines F-18’s and F-35’s.  By comparison China boasts 1,482 fighter aircraft, but many of these are obsolete for front line combat, and China has a huge territory where it must maintain air defense.  

Still, China is a growing power and as it expands its military capabilities the threat can’t be handled in the region without coordination among the states most affected.

Today there is no effective defense coordination that includes Taiwan.  The United States trains pilots from Taiwan in the United States, but does not conduct regional military exercises that include Taiwan’s (Republic of China) air force (ROCAF) or Taiwan’s air defense systems. 

Is there a way to include Taiwan in a coordinated way with the United States and the regions other main players, namely Japan and Korea? 

NATO’s operation Spartan Alliance offers a practical framework of strategic and tactical importance.  Even more significantly, the approach coordinates assets by virtual means and no aircraft, no air defenses and no troops are required.

For many years now, with the digital age military organizations have adopted computer-based simulators to emulate combat operations instead of using real hardware.  Most aircraft sold today come with simulators that are used for pilot training and testing various combat scenarios.

The US has been running simulations in the form of war games for many years, including simulations about war in Asia. Some American war game exercises attempt at realism, trying to integrate political and social factors into purely military responses to threats.  But these types of simulations are often a few steps removed from approximating real combat effects and often the “troops” manning the posts in the simulation are medium and high level officials, not weapon’s operators.  Even so, this kind of war gaming is very important because it offers a dose of realism for policy makers, making them think more strategically about practical decisions they make during their watch.  In some cases, US war games exercises combine virtual and live participants, offering some advantages but at substantially higher cost.

Taiwan’s F-CK-1 Ching- kuo fighter jet.

But the recent NATO exercise, called Spartan Alliance 18-8 (part of a series of Spartan Alliance exercises) actually linked together aircraft simulators to approximate real combat conditions.  In 18-8 for example, simulator operators piloted (or drove) a collection of fighter aircraft, and Italy’s newest high performance trainer, the M-346 played the role of the hostile air force.  The exercise covered Italy and brought in aircraft and air defenses from Germany connecting the German Luftwaffe and the U.S. Air Force Warrior Preparation Center in Ramstein, Germany.  Among the different types of aircraft used in the simulations were Tornado jets, Eurofighters, Predator drones and C-130 aircraft.  Ramstein provided F-15 and F-18 jets and A-10 close support aircraft.  The only aircraft not simulated was the F-35 which has entered service with the Italian Air Force, most likely because the simulators for the F-35 have yet to be integrated and capable of interacting with other NATO simulators.  Pilots operated their simulators at different air bases so that in all 22 simulators were employed in the exercise.

According to Spartan Alliance participants, the exercise proved successful and additional exercises using the same technique will be undertaken in future.

For Japan, Korea, Taiwan and the United States connecting simulators and testing combat scenarios virtually would afford the chance to set up operational rules of engagement and optimize strategy in case of any attack that threaten the participants.  The situation is East Asia has reached a point where an attack on one is almost certain to pull in the others in order to turn back the threat or, because the forces are properly managed and coordinated, deter any attack in the first place. 

There are many advantages to simulations and the art of integrating multiple simulators into an organic test bed is especially beneficial as no actual aircraft or air defense systems actually need to be physically deployed.  This means, among other things that there is no degradation of equipment since no planes actually fly; no waste of fuel or need for aircraft maintenance; and zero chance that outsiders will be able to “read” defense preparations because they are carried out in heavily encrypted Internet channels that, so long as they are cyber resilient can be operated under almost ideal security conditions.  The chief benefit is both to the operators and the commanders, who can assess vulnerabilities and challenges and improve future operations, even select the best ways to defend air space and naval and land assets (for example air base defense, protecting ships at sea, keeping sea lanes of communication open, etc.).

Simulators also will help uncover possible differences in operating language and how orders are interpreted, an important step to assuring smooth operations.  And such exercises will also illustrate other challenges including logistical support and weapon supplies.

From a political perspective, Spartan Alliance type operations offers plausible deniability, since virtual exercises leave no footprints.
But the real benefit is that the Spartan Alliance exercise, both for East Asia and for NATO provide a means to sharpen coordination and enhance force effectiveness.  Given the rising power of China a good way to re-balance forces is to add integrated virtual simulation to the defense arsenals of Taiwan, Japan, Korea and the United States. More importantly, through the modality of virtual simulation many of the important features of an area-wide “virtual alliance” can be organized.