The Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk
Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk via Wikipedia

On December 30, the Daily Yomiuri reported that Japan is looking into UAV technology for the surveillance of China and North Korea. This is backed up by the Midterm Defense Buildup Program from 2011, which the Cabinet approved on December 17. The paper’s sources in Ichigaya stated that senior SDF officers will look at the US experience with the Global Hawk, Northrop Grumman‘s long-range high-altitude drone. This would be a departure from previous research since 2003 into a domestically produced capability.

The US has flown the Global Hawk in both Iraq and Afghanistan. With a range of over 16,000 km and 18,000 metre ceiling, it can stay in the air for over 30 hours and gather strategic and tactical IMINT in a 550 km radius without putting its operator in danger. Although there has been some concern over the cost efficacy of the Global Hawk procurement programme in the US, at first glance it would appear to be a great choice for the JSDF as they face the current instability on the Korean Peninsula and rising China.

The Yomiuri article suggests that they would be used for territorial overwatch, stating that “three reconnaissance drones would be necessary to cover all of Japan’s territory and surrounding waters.” That would be at a unit cost of about ¥7.5 billion, plus the cost of the infrastructure. The article also mentions concerns over subsequent personnel cuts, although these officials don’t have to worry. A UAV fleet would be unlikely to replace the current 100-bird strong MSDF P-3C reconnaissance fleet in the short term. The Global Hawk will be a valuable strategic tool, but it is unlikely that it will mothball its manned counterpart after the Ministry spent so much money putting them into service. Just look at how many Type 74 tanks are still service in the GSDF.

A Kyodo report gives possible operational scenarios for the Global Hawk, “to defend remote Japanese islands and counter suspicious ships in and near Japanese waters, while at the same time looking at the possibility of operating them as part of the country’s shield against ballistic missiles”. This kind of territorial security mission would be a cakewalk for the Global Hawk, but if Japan is looking to keep an eye on China and North Korea, as the Yomiuri article hints at, then Japan would be much better off improving its spaceborne IMINT capabilities (namely the Information Gathering Satellite constellation).

If the Defense Ministry can pin down just what it wants a long-range UAV to be capable of, and use the capability in tandem with the current P-3C fleet, they will be able to constantly monitor Japanese territorial waters. That seems to be a realistic aim, but a couple of questions remain: Is it possible within the current budget, and who would fly them?

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A former contributor to World Intelligence (Japan Military Review), James Simpson joined Japan Security Watch in 2011, migrating with his blog Defending Japan. He has a Masters in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and is currently living in Kawasaki, Japan. His primary interests include the so-called 'normalization' of Japanese security (i.e. militarization), and the political impact of the abduction issue with North Korea.
James Simpson has 254 post(s) on Japan Security Watch