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Japan developing attack drone capabilities to counter threats

Felix Kim

Japan’s recent decision to develop attack drones, which follows Ukraine’s successful deployment of such unmanned aircraft against Russian warships and other military assets, could help the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to counter potential attacks and complicate the work of military planners in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), according to analysts and defense officials.

“I think Ukraine has shown us how these can be really super effective, where you have these little unmanned drones taking out large Russian platforms,” Jeffrey Hornung, a defense analyst with the Rand Corp., told FORUM. “I think Japan could do that in a similar way, either individually or in a networked system, to attack a hostile Chinese ship.”

The reconnaissance and assault capabilities of swarms of low-cost drones would undoubtedly be of military value, Gen. Yoshihide Yoshida, chief of staff of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force, said in March 2022, according to news website Japan Forward.

The Japanese Ministry of Defense’s fiscal year 2023 budget includes funding for research on the performance and fuselage design of small attack drones made by other countries, Japan Forward reported. In early 2021, Japan’s The Nikkei newspaper reported that the Defense Ministry planned to develop the artificial intelligence and remote flight control systems required for such drones.

Although it’s unclear whether combat drones could fully deter potential scenarios such as Chinese forces landing on Japan’s outer islands, they could render such attacks more difficult to plan and implement, Hornung said.

Attack drones “are really hard to track, really hard to isolate and you don’t know where they’re being launched from,” he said. “You don’t know what they’re capable of. And so, I think they would complicate any Chinese assault plan.”

The JSDF uses drones for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions, Hornung said. In mid-March 2022, the first of three RQ-4B Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles, a large ISR drone, arrived in Japan from the United States, according to the defense publication Janes.

The Global Hawks are being introduced “for the purpose of gathering information on regions relatively far from Japan and will constantly conduct aerial monitoring when the situation becomes tense,” according to the JSDF. “The aircraft will contribute to the strengthening of the operational ability of the Air Self-Defense Force and strengthen interoperability between Japan and the United States.”

In April 2022, Tokyo selected the MQ-9B SeaGuardian drone, pictured, to conduct maritime surveillance for Japan Coast Guard missions, according to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the drone’s U.S.-based manufacturer.

Shifting from manned to unmanned systems also reflects Japan’s demographic trends, Hornung said. “They’re already having problems with recruitment and obviously any unmanned system requires fewer people to run it than a comparable manned one,” he said.

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.


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