Sunday, April 21, 2024

New drone tech in spotlight as Japan eyes boosted capabilities

SINGAPORE/TOKYO – 

From loitering munitions and multisensor platforms to large autogyro cargo drones — this year’s Singapore Airshow hosted an array of unmanned aerial vehicles and tech that could benefit Japan at a time when the Self-Defense Forces are planning to replace their aging aircraft and helicopters with UAVs.

The airshow highlighted the growing international demand for unmanned systems as they become increasingly indispensable for modern militaries, particularly against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, where they have played a significant role on the battlefield.

Japan’s defense establishment is well aware of how drones are transforming warfare, which is why Tokyo is envisaging a growing role for unmanned systems in the SDF, especially in the air and maritime domains, as the country faces an increasingly tense regional security environment.

Many of the SDF’s drone plans were outlined in the Defense Buildup Program released in late 2022. They include procuring long-range UAVs and ship-borne assets that can conduct “seamless intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and targeting” as well as considering the use of transportation drones to supply remote bases and widely dispersed units.

The SDF also aims to eventually adopt “loyal wingman-type” UAVs that can operate together with Japan’s next-generation fighter aircraft expected by 2035. Moreover, the force wants to integrate multipurpose, attack and miniature UAVs, particularly as the Ground Self-Defense Force gradually retires its AH-1S anti-tank helicopters, AH-64D combat helicopters and OH-1 observation helicopters over the coming decade.

Tokyo has already undertaken important steps in this direction, announcing in August that it is seeking for the Ground Self-Defense Force a small strike-capable UAV as well as a larger one to be used for ISR and strikes. The latter would be a relatively large fixed-wing platform while the former is thought to refer to a loitering munition or an attritable UAV capable of dropping small explosives.

But that’s not all.

The Defense Ministry has also awarded contracts to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries for so-called target observation rounds to search, identify and collect information on enemy targets.

It is reportedly also considering the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 or U.S.-developed MQ-9 Reaper to intercept foreign aircraft approaching Japanese airspace as scrambles using manned jets become increasingly frequent and costly.

“The latest Defense Buildup Program indicates that the SDF recognizes the operational value of aerial drone capabilities, especially in terms of ISR functions, which speaks to the force’s commitment to quickly introduce them,” said Alessio Patalano, a war studies professor at King’s College London.

Among the key advantages of fielding UAVs is that they minimize human losses, particularly when deployed in inhospitable or dangerous environments. They are also cheaper to operate and maintain than manned aircraft and often have longer endurance, thus substantially adding to a force’s capabilities.

Armed forces such as the SDF have developed several ways to counter drones — including jamming — though technological advancements in digitalization, communications and artificial intelligence have made these platforms increasingly capable.

For instance, Japan is planning to acquire UAVs capable of satellite-enabled operations to improve operational and communications flexibility. Some drones can even emulate the electronic signatures of aircraft and operate as decoys to deceive adversary sensors.

The SDF is also working on technologies to enable integrated operations of both ground and aerial drones to protect critical facilities and enhance the country’s defense capabilities, among other things.

As drones become more capable, they are increasingly being adopted by militaries across the globe. The SDF already operates both larger ISR systems such as the RQ-4B Global Hawk and smaller drones such as the ScanEagle, which Japan is updating with synthetic-aperture radar, and the Flying Forward Reconnaissance System.

Masashi Murano, a Japan chair fellow at the U.S.-based Hudson Institute, argues that another key reason why Tokyo is keen on introducing these systems so quickly is survivability.

An MQ-9 Reaper drone stands on the runway at Naval Base Ventura County Sea Range, Point Mugu, near Oxnard, California. The Defense Ministry is considering purchasing the Reaper for intercepting foreign aircraft approaching Japanese airspace. | REUTERS

“The increasing sophistication of the adversary’s multilayered air defense systems has made it more difficult for expensive manned helicopters to survive,” he said.

“As evidenced in Ukraine, the proliferation of portable air-defense missiles such as the Stinger have become a major threat to helicopters, making it difficult for them to provide close air support with traditional low-altitude flying.”

When considering the defense of Japan’s southwestern Nansei Islands, the survivability of aerial assets will become increasingly more difficult than in Ukraine, he noted, arguing that they would have to fly over open water with no shielding.

Another advantage of unmanned systems is that they could partially help the SDF overcome its perennial personnel shortages. The force continues to struggle to recruit enough personnel amid Japan’s falling birthrate and growing competition with the private sector over a shrinking pool of applicants.

The ongoing shortages mean that fewer personnel will be available to crew manned platforms.

Against this backdrop, experts say that several of the UAVs and technologies displayed at the Singapore Airshow — the largest of its kind in Asia — could help meet at least some of the SDF’s requirements.

“Some of the capabilities on display covered troop mobility and logistical support, both of which would be of significant help to the SDF,” Patalano said.

While the AirFish 8 sea-skimming marine craft is still in its early days and the SDF continues to operate tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft for rapid troop deployments, some argue that the technology could be useful for Japan in the future. | © ST ENGINEERING/WIDGETWORKS

Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi, a project assistant professor at the University of Tokyo, said that while Japan was looking to develop UAVs domestically in the long term, the SDF would depend much on imported platforms and joint projects with foreign companies in the short term.

In Singapore, one of the most advanced systems at the event was the Switchblade 600 loitering munition from U.S. manufacturer AeroVironment. The man-portable kamikaze drone can fly for over 40 minutes and strike fixed or moving targets, including hardened ones, out to a range of more than 90 kilometers.

Murano said that assets such as the Switchblade, combined with other loitering munitions with electronic jamming capabilities such as the Altius-700, could be deployed from islands at key maritime chokepoints to disrupt or threaten an enemy warship’s air search radar and air-defense systems, in the event of a regional conflict.

Also on display were images of the turbo-prop-powered T840 autogyro cargo UAV from German company Tensor. The fixed-wing drone, which also features a rotor to enhance flight safety, can carry up to 800 kilograms of cargo over 600 km, said the manufacturer. The system is also comparably inexpensive to run, it said, with operating costs amounting to about $500 per hour, including fuel and maintenance.

The T840 is capable of extremely short takeoffs and landings, meaning that it doesn’t need a runway. This would come in handy in situations where no airfield is available.

The turbo-prop-powered T840 autogyro cargo UAV from German company Tensor can carry up to 800 kilograms of cargo over 600 kilometers. | © TENSOR

“The autogyro could fit the SDF’s cargo lift requirements if the range, endurance and payload capabilities are met,” said Yee Kuang Heng, an international security professor at the University of Tokyo.

Another platform that drew considerable attention at the show was a two-seat version of the AirFish 8 sea-skimming marine craft.

Designed to take off and land on water, developers see potential military applications for the wing-in-ground effect vehicle as a stealth platform in littoral waters that can quickly transport cargo or a small number of troops between islands. Although manned, a version of the craft can carry up to 10 passengers, including two crew, or 1,000 kg of supplies at a speed of 90 knots (166.7 km per hour), much faster than any marine craft.

That said, one of the more immediate SDF requirements could be met by U.S. company General Atomics, which is offering its MQ-9B SeaGuardian to the Maritime Self-Defense Force after the system entered service with the Japan Coast Guard in 2022.

Designed primarily as an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform, the MQ-9B can fly for 30 hours or more, depending on the configuration, and has a range encompassing a mission radius of 1,200 nautical miles (2,220 km).

The MSDF began testing the system last May from the Hachinohe air base in Aomori Prefecture. Defense Minister Minoru Kihara told reporters last month that the UAV will also be trialed over the East China Sea from July to September this year to assess whether unmanned aircraft could be used to replace some of the missions carried out by manned aircraft, including surveillance and early warning.

C. Mark Brinkley, a spokesman for General Atomics, told The Japan Times that one of the SeaGuardian’s key advantages is its capability to observe areas of interest “far longer than traditional manned aircraft, and at a much cheaper cost per flight hour.”

The SeaGuardian allows operators to fly missions remotely in shifts, without requiring the aircraft to return to base to refuel or change pilots and flight crews, Brinkley said.

He also said that the mission requirements identified in Japan’s revised national security documents “align closely” with the drone’s capabilities as well as with the company’s emerging collaborative combat aircraft and small drones.

“We won’t speculate as to where these assets could be deployed, but with the designed expeditionary nature of these aircraft and the ability to operate in multidomain environments, they could be used to support many current and future SDF capabilities and requirements,” he added.

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