Japan’s plan to purchase a U.S.-made unmanned area vehicle (UAV) is becoming increasingly uncertain on account of the high cost of using the aircraft and operational restrictions arising from technical capabilities and the limited provision of technology by the U.S. The Defense Ministry is now exploring the possibility of jointly developing a drone with Israel. However, caution has been voiced within the government about cooperating with the largest military power in the Middle East. Whether the joint development with Israel will proceed remains to be seen.
“Eurosatory,” the world’s-largest international weapons trade fair, was held in Paris in mid-June. About 5,000 companies from 50 different countries participated in the fair, including Japan’s Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency, which for the first time set up its own booth. On the morning of June 15, Equipment Policy Division Director Toru Hocchi met with an Israeli Defense Ministry official behind closed doors at the event.
The agency is interested in the Israeli-made Heron TP unmanned reconnaissance aircraft. “The aircraft has no black box (designed to prevent technical information from being disclosed) and can be equipped with Japanese sensors,” said an Israeli official, promoting the aircraft. “Japan will eventually be able to produce the drone on its own” (according to a source connected to the bilateral negotiations).
According to a Japanese government official, the Defense Ministry began exploring Israel’s mid-size drones three years ago. In April 2014, the government adopted the Three Principles on Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology. The principles enable the country to export weapons, as well as develop and produce arms jointly with other countries if certain criteria are met. Last year, officials from the Defense Ministry and the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) took a tour of Israel’s related facilities.
The Israeli Air Force also showed the Heron operating unit to the Asahi Shimbun. The drone is able to take off and land completely automatically. The operators’ booth was located adjacent to the runway. Senior and junior operators worked as a team with the senior operator actually operating the aircraft and the junior operator gathering the necessary information. Images captured by the camera installed on the drone are clear enough that “armed terrorists and civilians on the ground can be visually identified from high altitudes,” said an Israeli commander (26).
Last October in Tokyo, about 20 Israeli companies including Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), the major military corporation that manufactures the Heron, displayed their products at a trade fair for the state-of-the-art antiterrorism equipment.
“We are proud of our world-class technology that is on a par with that of the U.S., based on our 40 years of experience operating UAVs,” said an Israeli senior official of the Defense Ministry. “We would like to cooperate with Japan since it possesses advanced technology,” said another Israeli military official. “We can share our experiences and technology that has been improved through actual operations and combat.”
The Defense Ministry decided in 2014 to procure three “Global Hawks” (GH) to be put into operation in FY2019 and is expediting the process. Why, then, it is trying to develop another UAV jointly with Israel?
A number of Defense Ministry and SDF officials have disclosed that the GH is being viewed within the ministry as “excess baggage.”
In the beginning, those officials hoped the GH would be effective for constant monitoring of North Korea’s nuclear and missile development and China’s maritime advancement. As negotiations with the U.S. proceeded, however, issues of high cost and operational restrictions arising from technical capabilities and the limited provision of technology by the U.S. surfaced.
The largest concern is the GH’s low operating frequency. As GH flies at high altitudes where weather conditions are harsher, the aircraft requires more time for maintenance. As a result, the drone can only fly two to three times a week (according to a defense ministry official). If some of Japan’s drones are unable to fly due to long-term maintenance in the event of an emergency, it could create security gaps in the monitoring system.
Furthermore, the GH was originally said to be capable of not only capturing images of inland areas and vessels but also gathering targets’ signal intelligence; however, it seems that only the image capturing function will be available for the time being.
In addition, operational costs for the GH may become higher than expected. As most of the technology used for the fuselage has not been disclosed, management officials from U.S. companies will need to be stationed in Japan and the aircraft will reportedly need to be sent to the U.S. periodically for full-scale maintenance.
When transmitting data gathered during flights to a ground station via the satellite communication system, Japan will have to entrust the U.S. with some of the data processing for security reasons. The defense ministry’s estimate of the overall maintenance costs adds up to over 10 billion yen a year.
Although the Heron is not as advanced as the GH, it would make more technology available to Japan and its costs would be significantly cheaper. “The GH is reportedly viewed by Defense and SDF officials as a luxury imported car like a Ferrari, while the Heron is like an inexpensive family car” (according to a source connected to the negotiations).
In view of relations with the U.S. as an allied country, it would be difficult to reconsider the GH procurement. The possibility of a project for jointly developing a drone with Israel, however, is becoming a real possibility in terms of “filling security gaps.”