Japanese defense officials get serious on drones

Russian troops are said to be using Iranian-made Shahed-136 "suicide" drones in Ukraine, while Ukrainian forces are going tit-for-tat with Bayraktar TB2s from Turkey. Observers say the conflict heralds a new era for unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs -- and Japanese defense officials will not have failed to take notice.

Drones offer many benefits on the battlefield. The most obvious is the reduced risk to military personnel, who can remote-control them from the (relative) safety of the ground. That means they can be flown for longer without worry about human fatigue. And they can be thrust deep behind enemy lines with fewer concerns about being captured or shot down.

China's increasing military assertiveness and North Korea's numerous provocations have put Japanese defense officials on high alert. They're working to boost early-warning and surveillance capabilities, and UAVs are front and center in their plans.

Record defense budget

Currently, the Self-Defense Forces only possess US RQ-4 "Global Hawk" drones for surveillance. But for one year starting next month, US MQ-9 "Reapers" will be operated from the Maritime Self-Defense Force Kanoya Air Base in Kagoshima Prefecture.

US MQ-9 "Reapers" have been deployed to the Maritime Self-Defense Force Kanoya Air Base in Kagoshima Prefecture.

And Japanese authorities are not stopping there. The Defense Ministry's budget request for fiscal 2023 comes in at a record 5.6 trillion yen, or more than 37 billion dollars. Some of the funds are earmarked for drones, including UAVs with the ability to launch attacks.

The Defense Ministry's budget request for fiscal 2023.

Officials say they would need to be acquired and deployed as soon as possible to enhance defenses without risking human life. And in a document submitted to the US military, Japanese officials set out "Unmanned Defense Capability" as a pillar of future spending.

Japan-made drone in the works

The money won't just be going on imports. Moves are underway to develop a drone in Japan in collaboration with the United States. Officials say they want to deploy it as a means of support for their next-generation fighter jet -- expected to be jointly developed with Britain, and operational before 2040.

An image of the next-generation fighter jet that Japan plans to develop with Britain.

Japanese officials say the drone will likely feature AI technology for detecting enemy aircraft and missiles as early as possible.

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