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 with Japan’s Air Self Defense Force’s 373 and South Korea’s 466 fighter aircraft.

The US Air Force also deploys 130 front line fighters in Japan at Misawa and Kadena (Okinawa), and that’s not counting the US Marines’ F-18s and F-35s. By comparison, China boasts 1,482 fighter aircraft, but many of these are obsolete for front line combat, and China has a huge territory to defend.

Still, China is a growing power and as it expands its military capabilities, the threat can not 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.

Coordinating with Taiwan?

So is it possible to include Taiwan in a coordinated way with the United States and the region’s other main players, Japan and South 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, and because of 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 weapons operators.

A dose of realism

Even so, this kind of wargaming is very important because it offers a dose of realism for policymakers, 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.

But the recent NATO exercise, called Spartan Alliance 18-8 – part of a series of Spartan Alliance exercises – actually linked aircraft simulators to approximate real combat conditions. In 18-8, for example, simulator operators piloted 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 US 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 and a total of 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, South 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 threatens 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.

Vulnerabilities and challenges

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 airspace 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 offer 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, South 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.