Japan to disband ‘supersonic ninjas’

TOKYO (The Japan News/ANN) – The Air Self-Defence Force’s Tactical Reconnaissance Group is being disbanded at the end of fiscal 2019 and the RF-4 reconnaissance plane retired after keeping watch over Japan and its surrounding areas for more than 40 years.

The flight group, dubbed the “supersonic ninjas,” uses the F-4 fighter as its base plane. Formed in 1961, the group is currently headquartered at the ASDF’s Hyakuri Air Base in Ibaraki Prefecture. It has about 200 members.

Crew members take aerial photographs and develop the film on the ground. This analogue style is being replaced by cutting-edge reconnaissance aircraft that use digital technology and are often unmanned.

“The times are changing to favour fighting styles that emphasise speed,” a senior ASDF officer said.

The crew of an RF-4 removed film from underneath the plane’s fuselage after returning to the Hyakuri Air Base from a recent training run.

They then took the film into a darkroom on the base, where another unit member was waiting to develop it. After the film came out of the developing machine, they moved it millimetre by millimetre to align and connect it.

With a single large photograph of the ground, members of the unit and others then used magnifying glasses to search for one-millimetre-square targets one after another.

“Tactics are decided based on information obtained from reconnaissance, and results are confirmed the same way. Reconnaissance is essential to combat,” said Yuzuru Asakura, the group’s commander.

The RF-4 is based on the F-4 fighter developed by the United States. It can fly at Mach 2.2, or more than twice the speed of sound. The ASDF first introduced the fighter in the mid-1970s and currently has 13 in operation.

The RF-4 is notable for its camouflage fuselages, which come in three patterns to match Japan’s land and surrounding sea areas. Planes have four types of cameras ― short-distance, long-distance, infrared and panoramic. These planes are not armed.

An RF-4 is shown after returning from a training run at the Hyakuri Air Base in Ibaraki Prefecture on December 12, 2018 The camera is located in the lower-forward section of the fuselage
Members of the Air Self-Defence Force’s Tactical Reconnaissance Group search for targets on aerial photographs taken by an RF-4 at the Hyakuri Air Base in Ibaraki Prefecture on December 12, 2018. – PHOTOS: THE JAPAN NEWS/ANN

“Our duty is to bring home photographs without being spotted by the enemy. We don’t fight,” said the group’s captain Tomomitsu Okada.

Crew fly behind mountains to avoid radar, waiting for the perfect moment to take their photographs. This requires a different set of flying skills than fighter pilots have.

During the Cold War, the unit was on the front lines of the battle for information, such as on reconnaissance missions to track the secret movements of other countries’ militaries around Japan.

“There were pilots who did their duty while at risk of being shot down,” a senior ASDF officer said.

After the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, the unit used an infrared camera to photograph the reactor buildings at the Fukushima No 1 nuclear power plant. They also helped identify homes swept away by landslides in Atsuma, Hokkaido, after an earthquake in September last year.

With the planes’ fuselages deteriorating, the Defence Ministry began developing a successor in 2006, but this effort was abandoned in 2010 after cameras failed to perform adequately in trial runs.

It was then decided to introduce the Global Hawk, an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft manufactured in the United States.

Able to fly for 36 hours at a time and also obtain radio intelligence, the Global Hawk sends the data it gathers to the ground instantaneously.

“In modern warfare, conditions can change in a moment. With tools such as the Global Hawk and optical satellites, we want to increase the speed of our reconnaissance activities,” a senior ministry official said.

Many fans will be sad to see the RF-4 go.

“Most fighters are a cold grey colour, so the camouflage fuselage had some appeal. It’ll also be sad to see the analogue methods disappear,” said Kentaro Seki, an air warfare critic.

Hiroyasu Daimon, chief of the Tactical Reconnaissance Group’s information processing unit, said, “Even as things get more digitised and automated, there is still a big role for human hands to play in extracting the necessary information from images. The importance of that will not change. We’ll continue to stay on top of our training.”