Six Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) F-35As of No.75 Squadron are currently deployed to Komatsu Air Base in Japan for Exercise Bushido Guardian 23, which is running between 4-15 September. This year's iteration of the exercise is the first to be conducted through the Japan-Australia Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) which came into force on 13 August.
Wing Commander Martin Parker, Commanding Officer of 75 Sqn, said the exercise was “historic” for several reasons including its inaugural use of the RAA, the deployment of fifth-generation F-35 aircraft outside of Australia, and the depth of cooperation it entails with the Japan Air Self Defense Force (JASDF).
The principal focus of the exercise is mixed-formation air combat training and familiarisation with the number of aircraft involved steadily increasing. While initial sorties involved lone aircraft flying one-versus-one basic fighter manoeuvres, throughout the exercise, complexity has steadily increased to include mock ten-versus-ten beyond visual range (BVR) engagements.
Notably, Flight Lieutenant Mitchell Delaney, an F-35A pilot with 75 Sqn, said, all of the formations were mixed and involved aircraft from both Australia and Japan. These formations, he said, had integrated well despite some language barriers.
“Once you’re in the air, it’s all the same, F-35s just fly with F-35s,” he added.
The JASDF has deployed a number of aircraft as part of the exercise including F-35A, F-15J and F-2A fast-jets. Tanker support has been provided by JASDF KC-767s which refuelled RAAF F-35As for the first time during the exercise.
WGCDR Parker said exercise had plenty of benefits beyond air combat training. Bushido Guardian, alongside recent 75 Sqn F-35A deployments to Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, has helped “build the [squadron’s] confidence from a security and logistics lens,” he explained.
Before this year he said the RAAF hadn’t deployed any of its fifth-generation F-35As outside of either Australian, Malaysia or the United States. Now, he said, they have visited four countries and are preparing to deploy to Indonesia for Exercise Elang AUSINDO next week.
Wing Commander Melanie Buswell, the former Royal Australian Air Force Attache in Tokyo, who is commanding the 75 Sqn Task Unit for Exercise Bushido Guardian echoed WGCDR Parker's observations about the broader utility of the exercise.
She said, noting that the only way to learn about what it’s like to operate from a Japanese air base is by doing it.
As an example, she highlighted the fact that the procedure to order a power cart at a Japanese air base is very different to an RAAF establishment; without deployments like this one to Japan she said the RAAF wouldn’t have the necessary institutional and people knowledge should it have to deploy Japan in an operational situation.
The RAA, she said, would enable more exchanges like Bushido Guardian because, where previous activities involved months of legal and diplomatic work beforehand, the RAA streamlines the process and speeds it up massively.
While interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, moving forward, Bushido Guardian will take place biennially in Japan. Simultaneously, Japan has signalled its intent to ramp up the number of and duration of F-35A deployments to Australia, with eyes on the creation of an eventual rotational presence.