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U.S. drone aircraft relocate to Okinawa, enhance East China Sea surveillance


Eight United States Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drones are moving almost 700 kilometers south to U.S. Forces Japan’s Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, in Japan’s southwestern islands. The remote-controlled aircraft, previously deployed to the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Kanoya Air Base in Kagoshima, are used mostly for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

Tokyo is concerned about the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) assertiveness in the region. The MQ-9 Reapers, operated by the 319th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, will provide a window into CCP activities in the contested East China Sea. Japanese and U.S. forces are working together to relocate the drones and more than 150 Airmen.

The U.S. Air Force’s 319th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, coordinating with Japan’s Defense Ministry, is relocating eight MQ-9 Reaper drones from Kanoya Air Base to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa. VIDEO CREDIT: PETTY OFFICER 2ND CLASS JACK AISTRUP/U.S. NAVY

“As the security environment becomes increasingly severe, we will further strengthen the deterrence and response capabilities of the Japan-U.S. Alliance, including intelligence-gathering capabilities,” Japanese Defense Minister Minoru Kihara said in mid-October 2023. “With the activities of countries surrounding Japan becoming more active and the need for information gathering in the sea and airspace around Japan’s southwest region increasing, the deployment of the U.S. Air Force MQ-9 to Kadena Air Base will … provide easier access to the region” and allow more time for surveillance, he said.

The Nansei island chain stretches southwest from Japan’s main islands toward self-governed Taiwan and includes Okinawa and the disputed Senkaku Islands, which are controlled by Japan but claimed by the CCP. In recent years, CCP coast guard and naval ships have shadowed Japanese fishing vessels in the area.

The MQ-9 Reaper, about 11 meters long with a wingspan of 20 meters, can carry payloads up to 1,700 kilograms, including missiles and laser-guided bombs, Stars and Stripes newspaper reported.

The eight Reapers deployed to Kanoya Air Base, on the southernmost of Japan’s main islands, in November 2022. The aircraft conducted missions to deter and assess the CCP’s increasing maritime activities near Japan, The Diplomat magazine reported in October 2023.

The announcement of the squadron’s move to Kadena Air Base came after Kihara met with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Washington, D.C., in early October. The leaders reaffirmed the importance of MQ-9 drones in joint ISR efforts, The Diplomat reported. The first Reaper arrived later that month at Kadena, the largest U.S. base in the region and known as the “Keystone of the Pacific.”

The medium-altitude, long-endurance Reapers will monitor potential flashpoints and provide intelligence to U.S. commanders and Allies and Partners, including an intelligence analysis cell comprised of Japanese and U.S. military officials, a U.S. Air Force spokesman told Stars and Stripes.

“Our Airmen are excited to serve in this challenging priority theater,” Lt. Col. Jordan Smith, the 319th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron commander, said in a statement. Deploying to Kadena will provide a more “real-time operating picture.”

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