As China is starting to build a second aircraft carrier, the latest news from Japan is that its Maritime Self-Defense Force may begin flying unmanned surveillance drones from destroyers at sea as a possible prelude to procuring aircraft carriers.
The Japan Times reports, Jan. 12, 2014, that with China increasing its presence in the East China Sea, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) is accelerating efforts to boost surveillance abilities. To that end, the MSDF is considering deploying fixed-wing unmanned reconnaissance aircraft (drones) that can take off from and land on destroyers, according to sources.
The MSDF has no experience flying fixed-wing aircraft from destroyers because doing so might draw allegations that it is operating an offensive aircraft carrier, which is banned by the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9.
At the same time, the MSDF intends to undertake research on the equipment needed to conduct the drone operations. But related research costs in the MSDF’s fiscal 2014 budget request amount only to some ¥2 million.
Depending on its research, Japan might someday build an aircraft carrier equipped with fighter jets, the sources said. But an official at the Defense Ministry denied that such studies will lead to the deployment of fighter jets, insisting that unmanned aircraft can be used in dangerous areas in emergencies.
Over the next five years, the MSDF is expected to buy up to 19 such unmanned surveillance drones, possibly the RQ-21 small tactical unmanned aircraft used by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, which can fly continuously for up to some 24 hours, and uses remotely controlled routes.
In line with the constitutional constraints, the MSDF’s destroyers are not currently equipped with takeoff and landing equipment for aircraft. They can handle only helicopters and the U.S. Marine Corps’ MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor transport aircraft.
Zachary Keck reports for The Diplomat, Jan. 15, 2014, that Japan’s move to operate aircraft from surface ships is likely to spark concern and criticism from some states in the region, particularly China, which insists that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking to break loose from the country’s post-WWII pacifist Constitution.
Japan’s decision to only consider using (presumably unarmed) reconnaissance drones at this time was likely made, at least in part, with an eye toward deflecting the almost certain criticism that the move will provoke. By starting with unarmed aircraft, Japan could seek to gradually seek to make the region comfortable with it operating fixed wing aircraft from surface ships. Moreover, even if the Defense Ministry source is being truthful in saying that only drones and not fighter jets will be flown from Japanese ships, unmanned aircraft will become increasingly capable of being used in some of the same ways as bombers and jets in the years ahead.
Still, the decision to use surveillance drones is also consistent with Japan’s strategic interests. In particular, as Tokyo’s dispute with Beijing over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands has dragged on, Japan has taken a number of steps to increase its surveillance capabilities over some of its outer lying islands. This has most certainly included fielding a capable drone force. As The Diplomat has previously reported, Japan intends to procure RQ-4 Global Hawk drones in the coming years to augment the ones the U.S. already maintains in Japan.
One issue Japan will encounter if it moves forward with the plan is that its current destroyers are not equipped with takeoff and landing equipment for aircraft. It’s possible that one of the Izumo-class helicopter destroyers Japan is currently building and testing will be upgraded to have this capability. Japan unveiled the first of these new, large helicopter destroyers last year, which some in China called an “aircraft carrier in disguise.” Some have speculated that the larger size of the Izumo-class vessels was due to Japan’s desire to launch V22 Ospreys off the ships. However, the larger size may also allow Japan to use them to launch drones.