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Automation, new technologies support Japan’s defense future

Marc Jacob Prosser

Japan’s plan to boost defense spending to 2% of its gross domestic product by 2027 comes as the nation faces a stark security challenge: an aging, shrinking population.

In 1994, there were 17 million Japanese citizens age 18 to 26, the core of the Japan Self-Defense Forces’ (JSDF) recruitment pool. By October 2021, the number had fallen to 10.5 million. The JSDF also faces competition from the private sector for prospective recruits.

Part of the answer, as outlined in the nation’s recently revised Defense Buildup Program, is increased focus on new technologies and automation. Japan has pledged to vigorously encourage automation, labor-saving measures and optimization to account for an aging population and dropping birthrate.

“New technologies and automation can make a positive difference for all functions of Japan’s defense force, including intelligence, operations, logistics, command and control,” Nozomu Yoshitomi, a professor at Nihon University’s College of Risk Management and a retired major general with the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force, told FORUM.

Digital transformation will be key, according to James Angelus, president of the International Security Industry Council of Japan.

“The future of defense relies on innovation and digital technologies to connect people and ideas, strategies and operations, enable rapid decision-making and deployment,” he told FORUM, adding that a phrase popularized by United States Air Force Gen. Charles Brown Jr. is apt for Japan: “Accelerate, Change or Lose.”

Japan already is integrating automation and new technologies to navigate the Indo-Pacific threat landscape.

Yoshitomi pointed to the Mogami-class frigate, pictured, as an example. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s multimission vessel has stealth capabilities and can operate uncrewed underwater and surface vehicles. Advanced automation systems decrease crew requirements in the wheelhouse, engine control room and combat information center, which incorporates augmented reality technology.

Such assets bolster Japan’s ability to deter hostilities in the region, which is seeing increasingly assertive and aggressive posturing by nations such as the People’s Republic of China and North Korea.

Artificial intelligence (AI), drones and other technologies are also being introduced to support information processing and decision-making. Future radar sites, ships, submarines and other critical defense systems will require smaller crews.

Similarly, the pace of modern warfare requires systems with increased autonomy and automation. North Korea’s onslaught of missile tests forces Japan to analyze and respond to launches with little to no warning. This requires integration and rapid information exchange between intelligence equipment and missile defense systems.

Adopting technologies such as AI can enable greater autonomy and automation, and quicker decision-making. Ensuring that new systems have the necessary data to operate effectively in heavily contested environments with rapidly changing variables will be a core focus for Tokyo.

Angelus and Yoshitomi emphasized that efforts to increase automation and introduce new technologies in the JSDF will also require a pool of trained professionals and broad upgrades across the defense infrastructure.

Marc Jacob Prosser is a FORUM contributor reporting from Tokyo.


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