November 15, 2010 — Japan’s naval forces have been gradually expanding their range in recent years, mostly to help protect vital sea lanes through which much of the world’s commerce—and the country’s vital supply of imported oil–flows. The next step under consideration by Tokyo: the introduction of a sci-fi like surveillance tool, dubbed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones.
These aren’t the kind of heavily armed stealth drones the U.S. has dispatched to unleash carnage upon unsuspecting terrorist sympathizers. The type of drone Japan has in mind is a weaponless observer plane which would stay perched at elevated levels to perform reconnaissance for extended periods and across long distances.
The need is driven by a vast area to monitor: Global Security.org says some 40,000 square kilometers alone are claimed by both China and Japan. Successive administrations in Tokyo have pledged to boost Japan’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. A final report issued in August by a Japanese “wise man” government advisory panel came down in favor of moving forward, explicitly calling for “the introduction of high-altitude ISR, including UAV.”
That recommendation may be included in Japan’s formal National Strategic Defense Guidelines and a five-year defense spending plan, both of which are due out in mid-December.
Japan’s postwar constitution has long been a check on the projection of its military power abroad. And while drones are essentially defensive in nature, some Japanese question the need for long range surveillance capabilities. Also, at upwards of $60 million each with fully installed payload, the cost gives some lawmakers pause. As a result, there is in no rush on in Nagatacho–Japan’s chief political district–to introduce drones.
“Whether or not UAVs fit into our (defense-orientated security) framework is something we still need a bit more discussion on,” Jun Azumi, Japan’s senior parliamentary vice minister of defense and a member of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, told JRT in an interview. “In addition, we are under severe fiscal restraints and even one UAV is a very expensive proposition,” he said.
If Japanese government officials remain coy about if–or when–they plan to introduce UAVs, American security experts and industry officials say it’s high time to add them to Japan’s increasingly sophisticated arsenal — particularly defense contractors eager to sell them.
They point to a recent diplomatic standoff centered on a handful of disputed East China Sea islands—called the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China—as a reminder of how useful drones could be in spotting potential trouble brewing in the remotest reaches of claimed Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). “I’m not sure that by itself the Senkaku incident was a tipping point, but it does highlight the challenges Japan confronts in monitoring its very large EEZ,” said Curtis Orchard, a vice president in the Tokyo office of Northrop Grumman, which hopes to supply its Global Hawk RQ-4 to the Japanese government.
Sounding a similar alarm in a soon-to-be released report, the Washington-based Center for a New American Security says that drones would complement Japan’s existing manned aircraft reconnaissance and spy satellites. “Japan does not possess high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft that could fill this and other gaps and enhance the operations of other platforms,” according to the CNAS report. “HALE UAV platforms such as the RQ-4 Global Hawk could fill the high-altitude gap.”
HALE — in the acronym-laden world of weaponry — stands for high altitude, long endurance. HALE UAVs carry payloads crammed with an exotic array of intelligence collection devices, such as electro-optimal imagery and signals sensors to “see” or “hear” over the horizon. Drones like Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk can hover for more than 36 hours at altitudes exceeding 60,000 feet at a range of 15,000 miles.
The U.S. has several Global Hawks in service, including the RQ-4 model which newly deployed in September to the U.S. territory of Guam near Japan. Industry officials say other U.S. allies may also be interested in the drone, including Australia, Germany and the U.K.
The Japanese government has been studying whether or not to join the UAV club for several years as part of its broader security alliance with the U.S. (For more on this, see: U.S.-Japan Relations Warm)
Absent any drones, for now, the Japanese coast guard has stepped up its manned air and sea patrols of the country’s EEZ, which extend for more than 200 nautical miles from tiny islets claimed by Japan that are up to 2,000 kilometers south of Tokyo.
Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force has also been ranging increasingly far and wide—albeit as part of well defined and tightly scripted missions. For nine years through January of this year, the Japanese navy supported U.S. patrols in the Indian Ocean. And, as part of a multinational anti-piracy effort in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia, Japan has rotated two pairs of destroyers into the area along with twin P-3C surveillance planes.
This past July, the Japanese Cabinet decided to allocate funds to build a facility for those aircraft in nearby Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. Some Japanese media have termed this facility, to be constructed within the confines of the Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport, as Japan’s first post-World War II foreign base (although you won’t find the term “Djibouti base” on the Japanese Ministry of Defense’s website—in English or Japanese.)
No word yet on whether the African air field has room for any future Japanese drones.