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A formation of 67th Fighter Squadron F-15 and Japan Air Self-Defense Force F-4 aircraft fly over Okinawa after a joint training mission that tested the air defense and counter-capabilities of both countries.
A formation of 67th Fighter Squadron F-15 and Japan Air Self-Defense Force F-4 aircraft fly over Okinawa after a joint training mission that tested the air defense and counter-capabilities of both countries. (Richard Freeland / U.S. Air Force)

Japanese and U.S. fighter pilots took turns “defending” Japan last week in air exercises aimed at improving the two forces’ working relationship, Air Force officials said.

Kadena-based F-15s and Japanese F-4s from Naha practiced large-group fighting on Friday, with as many as eight aircraft squaring off against a similar number of “enemy” aircraft.

“It turns into a big chess game with more players,” said Air Force Maj. Wes “Jammer” Smith.

Both sides engaged in a “defense of Japan” scenario, where one side practiced protecting airspace from the enemy force’s incursion.

The exercises allowed pilots to practice short-range maneuvering and communication skills, Smith said.

In some exercises, pilots had to contend with “faulty” jammers and radar warning receivers and other setbacks.

The American pilots did have one advantage: the faster F-15 replaced the F-4 in the U.S. Air Force. But in many cases, the quality of the pilot is just as important as the aircraft.

“It was not a one-sided battle,” Smith said. During one engagement, the American pilots had prepared for one set of tactics, but the Japanese pilots had other plans.

“They did something completely different and I had to adapt to it,” Smith said.

Most of the Kadena F-15s are “78s,” planes dating back to fiscal year 1978. F-15s can travel at more than Mach 2.5, or about 1,875 mph. The model has flown in every major U.S. military engagement since it was introduced, and the F-15C was responsible for 34 of 37 air-to-air victories during Operation Desert Storm, according to the Air Force.

The F-4 traces its history back to the 1950s as the Navy’s first Mach 2 carrier-based aircraft. McDonnell Douglas began producing the F-4C for the Air Force in 1963. The Japanese had the F-4EJ specially designed with most of its offensive systems stripped in accordance with their constitution, which bans their forces from offensive missions. It did fit the aircraft with what at the time was advanced tail warning radar, along with air-to-air guided missiles.

The training helped Japanese pilots learn how to better approach different air tactics, said Maj. Naruhiko Yamashita of the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force’s 302nd Fighter Squadron.

“The hardest part was language barrier,” he said. “Communication in English was a challenge. However, we could learn a lot by learning the differences between the U.S. Air Force and us.”

U.S. pilots were generally impressed with their counterparts’ efforts, Smith said.

“The (Japanese) pilots themselves are very competent and very disciplined,” he said.

Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.

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