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Politics

Japan aims to deploy unmanned fighter jets in 2035

Aircraft designed to counter China's superiority in numbers

A rendering of Japan's next-generation fighter jet: The Defense Ministry aims to deploy drones to complement these new aircraft. (Nikkei montage/source photo from Ministry of Defense via Kyodo)

TOKYO -- Japan has begun to develop unmanned, remote-controlled fighter aircraft capable of breakneck maneuvers that will be deployed as early as 2035, bracing for further advancements in China's military technologies and the rise of drone warfare.

Currently, Tokyo stands outmanned and outgunned by its larger neighbor. China possesses more than 1,000 fourth-generation fighter jets that can reach supersonic speeds, about triple as many as Japan, according to the Defense Ministry. It has also began deploying fifth-generation stealth fighters.

Facing a significant disadvantage in numbers, Japan, like many other countries, is accelerating defense-related research to curb China's military power. 

Japan's Defense Ministry plans to introduce fighter drones in three stages -- first those that are remote controlled, then "teaming" operations where one manned plane would control several drones, and ultimately for use in completely unmanned and autonomous squadrons. Autonomous weapons require advanced machine-learning capabilities, and international rules have yet to catch up to the technology. The ministry plans to focus on teaming operations first for its 2035 goal, set to coincide with the deployment of Japan's next-generation manned fighters.

Japanese companies have already been tasked with researching the necessary technologies. Subaru will be in charge of developing remote and flight control capabilities, while Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Mitsubishi Electric will work on an instantaneous information-sharing system between multiple aircraft. The ministry's Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency is also planning out artificial intelligence technology for the drones.

Japanese players could partner with U.S. and British companies as well.

The ministry will invest 2.5 billion yen ($24.3 million) into remote and flight control technology, and another 200 million yen into AI technology. It aims to conduct a flight test with a small prototype around fiscal 2024, when the research phase is expected to wrap up, and start designing the final product as early as fiscal 2025. The final fighter drones could be equipped with detection and missile capabilities.

Japan hopes to bolster its defenses using relatively little manpower by allowing one pilot to control multiple drones, and having the jets share information with each other. The drones could also gather data in dangerous areas without risking the lives of Japanese self-defense personnel.

Because fighter drones do not need a cockpit, they can be built smaller, simpler and more cheaply than a manned jet. But they need sophisticated AI that can instantaneously process large amounts of data to respond effectively to an enemy strike.

Countries around the world are working to develop fighter drones. China's public and private sectors are working together on the technology, and the country is already using unmanned aircraft on the field. A Chinese drone in 2017 flew into Japanese airspace near the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which China claims and calls the Diaoyu.

China is also believed to be working on an AI-powered combat support system. Further advancements there could force Japan to ramp up its defense capabilities even further.

Meanwhile, the U.S. also conducted its first test flight in 2019. Its drones are believed to be able to carry at least two small bombs, and could also be equipped for anti-surface and air combat. The U.S. Air Force plans to test an autonomous aircraft against a manned jet in July.

The U.K. plans to conduct a test flight as early as 2022, and envisions linking fighter drones to next-generation manned fighters that are currently in development. Australia is considering equipping its fighter drones with integrated sensors to bolster surveillance operations.

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