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Japan to develop combat drones to assist jet fighters

Tokyo eyes deployment of home-grown aircraft in 2035 with U.S. help

Japan's Self-Defense Forces currently use the U.S.-made Global Hawk drone, but for surveillance rather than combat.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan plans to develop unmanned aircraft that will fly in support of fighter aircraft, as the government aims to strengthen the defense of its airspace and to deter attacks, Nikkei has learned. The drones will be jointly developed with the U.S. to allow the two allies to operate more closely together.

The drones will be tasked with early detection of enemy aircraft and missiles. The government is also considering equipping the drones with missiles that would intercept missiles launched by an enemy.

The government aims to develop a prototype air combat drone by fiscal 2025, and actual drones from fiscal 2026 onward. It has set a target of fiscal 2035 for deployment of the new aircraft.

Drones have been touted as a game-changer that changed the style of combat in Ukraine, as Kyiv's military has used drones to attack Russian ships taking part in the invasion.

U.S., Europe, China, and others have begun to develop advanced tactics that combine unmanned aircraft with manned combat aircraft, rather than using them alone, in order to broaden the scope of air force operations. Japan, along with the U.S., is hurrying to develop unmanned aerial vehicles, believing that such operations will become a mainstay of aerial warfare.

The drones will be equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) and fly autonomously in front of fighter aircraft. The drones will receive instructions from pilots or a remote command center and fly based on the AI's assessment of the terrain and weather conditions.

Japan's Self-Defense Forces already possess drones, such as the U.S.-made Global Hawk, but these are limited to surveillance and do not engage in combat. Thus far, no country has deployed drones that fly alongside fighter jets, according to the Defense Ministry.

The Japanese government is currently working on a new fighter aircraft to replace its F-2, aiming for deployment in 2035. The drones will be used to support the new fighter jets. The year 2035 is also the target date for China's military modernization. Japan, therefore, wants to build up capabilities in which manned and unmanned aircraft work together.

The U.S. military believes China could move to take Taiwan, which it claims as its territory, by force by 2027. If that happens, Japan's air defense network using unmanned aircraft would not be ready in time. For the time being, Japan intends to enhance deterrence through joint drills with MQ9 drones, which the U.S. military will temporarily deploy in Japan in the summer. The MQ9, which the U.S. military has used in Iraq and Syria, can be armed to carry out offensive missions.

Drones make it easier to create an advantage in air-to-air combat. They will also be able to fly in areas that are difficult for manned fighter aircraft to reach. It will also help reduce the burden on pilots. Compared with China and other countries, the number of SDF personnel is small, and the use of unmanned aircraft can help compensate for their disadvantage in manpower.

Operations using unmanned aircraft will be the mainstay of aerial warfare in the future. Joint development with the U.S., Japan's close ally, will make it easier to enhance interoperability.

The government expects Japanese companies to lead the development effort to make it easier to modify the equipment and to help Japan maintain its domestic defense industry. It is also co-developing with the U.S. a successor to the F-2 fighter jets currently in use.

Manned fighters cost about 10 billion yen ($77 million) apiece. The cost of unmanned aircraft is much lower.

As for the number of drones to be deployed, one idea is to have the same fleet size as the current 100 F-2 fighter aircraft.

The international community has raised ethical questions regarding the use of AI in life-or-death decisions, such as whether to strike a particular target. As such, the Defense Ministry intends to ensure that humans have the final say when using unmanned aircraft.

Japan counts China and Russia, which are building up their military forces, among its neighbors. The number of scrambles by the Air Self-Defense Force in response to airspace violations by both countries is rising. Moreover, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has raised concerns that countries could seek to alter the status quo in Asia by force.

Japan's move to develop unmanned aerial vehicles is a game-changer that will change the nature of combat. It is also a sign of Japan's urgent desire to upgrade its air defense system.

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