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Arthur Herman: Japan's coming drone revolution

Unmanned aircraft, or drones, made headlines last spring when South Korean investigators found three small robotic planes equipped with digital cameras that had flown undetected across the border from North Korea and then crashed. South Korean officials were quick to point out that the sky-blue aircraft were unarmed and no bigger than a child's remote control airplane -- and highly unsophisticated compared with civilian drones that fly every day over the U.S. and Europe, or the armed ones that roam the skies of the Middle East. In September, the wreckage of another unmanned aircraft, believed to be North Korean, was found in a different location in South Korea.

     It was a chilling reminder that the unmanned revolution, or as some call it, the drone arms race, is coming to Asia, including Japan. Worldwide spending on drones is expected to double by 2023, and Japan's Defense Ministry is considering domestic production of four to eight unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, for surveillance and information gathering, to be deployed around fiscal 2020, according to a recent report by The Nikkei.

     In recent years, the UAV has gone from a science-fiction fantasy to a lethal reality. In 2000, the U.S. military had fewer than 50 such devices. Today, it has more than 11,000, with more to come. From the Hellfire missile-carrying Predator and the 14-meter-long Global Hawk to the tiny Raven that carries a camera the size of a peanut, UAVs are becoming ubiquitous, but also increasingly deadly.

    The prevalence of drone strikes in places like Yemen and Pakistan has triggered fears that we are creating a generation of inhuman robotic killers -- meaning both the UAVs and their operators. One human rights group has estimated that strikes in Pakistan have killed 175 children since 2004. American officials say that number is wildly exaggerated, and point out that the precision gained in a GPS-guided drone strike results in far less "collateral damage" than conventional attacks from the air.

     In addition, of the Pentagon's fleet of 11,000 UAVs, only 450 can carry arms. Worldwide, the vast majority of military UAVs are used for surveillance and gathering intelligence, not firing weapons. From that point of view, the coming of the UAV revolution could be a significant game changer for Japan as it expands its self-defense capabilities. Both the public and policymakers need to be aware of pros and cons of this intriguing but also controversial, new defense technology.

So many uses

The most modern unmanned aircraft are far more than just toys. They replicate most of the characteristics of manned aircraft -- some like the American Reaper and Global Hawk are even of the same size. The biggest have human pilots flying them by remote control, who are trained and licensed just like any other pilot.

     UAVs also have key advantages over manned aircraft. They are persistent, meaning they can fly around-the-clock without inducing pilot fatigue or expending large amounts of fuel, as UAVs are much lighter than conventional aircraft. This is especially useful for surveillance or reconnaissance missions, where staying on watch 24/7 is sometimes not only useful but essential -- and UAVs are able to arrive at their rendezvous points or flight paths by GPS without fear of human navigational error. They also fire missiles with the same GPS-guided precision.

     UAVs are also inexpensive compared with manned military aircraft, since they require no systems to protect a pilot's health and safety or provide him or her with onboard information.

     Above all, a UAV is entirely expendable. If it crashes or is shot down, no one on board dies, while the cost of a crashed Predator is about one-twentieth the cost of a downed F/A-18E Super Hornet.

     While civilian uses of UAVs are growing every day, from monitoring traffic and forest fires to delivering packages, it is the world's militaries that have embraced and driven the unmanned revolution. Modern militaries see them as effective tools for risky missions, or ones requiring 24/7 surveillance, or ones requiring more stealth with the buzz of quiet prop motors instead of the roar of jet engines -- though jet-equipped UAVs are in the offing.

Already underway

One of those militaries is China's. The People's Liberation Army has not only embraced the UAV revolution, but is pushing ahead with its own generation of unmanned aerial technology. China's most powerful is the Wing Loong, which was developed in 2005 and is similar to the American Reaper. Weighing 1.1 tons with a 14-meter wingspan, the Wing Loong carries two Blue Arrow air-to-surface missiles, much like the Reaper does, except that the Blue Arrow is much cheaper than the American missile counterpart.

     That is one reason Uzbekistan has bought the Wing Loong, and so has the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia is reportedly placing an order as is one other Persian Gulf state. China itself has plans to build 11 drone bases along its coast, and last November used its first combat drone equipped with stealth technology in a field test near the Senkaku Islands.
     It is little wonder that Japan is worried, and is looking for help in building its own UAV fleet from the experts, the Americans. One of the biggest UAV manufacturers is Northrop Grumman, which is looking to expand the market for its Global Hawk surveillance drone in both Europe and Japan. A deal to sell to the Germans recently fell through, though Northrop officials have hopes of reviving it. The company is betting its maritime version of the Global Hawk will appeal to Japan's Ministry of Defense for identifying and tracking foreign ships, and separating the friendly from the unfriendly.

     However, General Atomics, the creator of the famous -- or notorious -- Predator and Reaper, is not far behind. They are looking to market nonlethal versions for the same maritime surveillance task, but at a fraction of the cost needed for the Global Hawk. They are also developing a jet-powered version that can take off and land on ships -- a major advantage both in speed and range for a military trying to protect a country that consists of island chains.

     Given that the investment in drones is expected to soar, making Japan the world's fastest-growing UAV market, no one will be surprised if other U.S. UAV makers, including Boeing, start getting into the market as well.

     That may be good for American manufacturers, but is it good for Japan?

Controlling the inevitable

On balance, the answer is yes, it is good for Japan. According to the 2014 defense budget, a UAV fleet is necessary to "build defense capabilities to ensure security of the sea and airspace surrounding Japan" or to respond to an attack on the disputed Senkakus or islands closer to the Japanese mainland.

     Yet for Japan, a budding UAV fleet presents the possibility of not just providing early warning of attack, and a quick response from systems doing around-the-clock surveillance, it is also a potential equalizer, with superior technology making up for inferior numbers. In addition, using unmanned systems, an aging population can still maintain a military that operates at peak efficiency with far less risk to life and limb.

     Even more, deploying and developing unmanned systems -- including unmanned undersea vehicles, or UUVs -- demands the kind of high-tech skills in which Japanese industry excels: sensors, navigation and control hardware and software both for the UAV and for systems on the ground, optics for cameras, electronic guidance systems for delivery of missiles, etc. When Japanese aerospace companies start working with U.S. partners on joint projects, it is easy to predict that in a few years Japan will emerge as a leading maker, as well as user, of the next generation of drones.

     That, however, still leaves the ethical issues of whether Japan needs to invest in weaponized UAV systems. The primary useful applications of UAVs are as surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering tools -- missions that do not require weapons. But in the end, prudence suggests it would be foolish to close that option. General Atomics' drones, for example, have the parts for both. Not only can an armed UAV on an around-the-clock patrol respond more quickly to a crisis with deadly force, it can also respond to such with greater precision.

     The truth is, attempts to ban deadly technologies rarely work, if ever. Neither does unilateral self-restraint. Instead, a sane approach that balances national security with ethical integrity will be necessary in dealing with the future of UAVs in war and peace, because this technology will soon be roaming the skies of the Pacific -- much sooner than many realize.

     Although there are powerful ethical considerations about the use and misuse of unmanned aircraft, these devices are still cost-effective, reliable means of identifying and keeping track of possible threats to the homeland, 24/7, and over great distances -- even when they are not used in more controversial, lethal ways.

     The ancient Greek philosopher Seneca once said that fate leads the willing and drags along the unwilling. When it comes to UAVs, a democratic country like Japan has to be willing, but also play it smart.

Arthur Herman is senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.

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