By Kaiya Michitaka, Matsushita Masakazu, Tanigawa Kojiro, Amano Yusuke, Oyabu Tsuyoshi, Kamimura Kenta, Kuriyama Hirotaka, Nakanishi Kenji (Berlin bureau), Tajima Hiroshi (Washington bureau), Ikeda Keita (London bureau)
A meter-long drone mounted with six propellers lands on the ground to detect objects buried about 10cm under the surface by using sound waves it emits.
This was an experiment conducted by a Japanese research group, as the global competition over the development of mine-detection technology using drones is heating up.
The experiment was led by Professor Sugimoto Tsuneyoshi, who specializes in the development of non-destructive measurement devices at the Toin University of Yokohama. The project was funded through a “program to promote the research and development of security technology” under the aegis of the Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency (ATLA). It began receiving the funding from November 2018 and the aforementioned experiment was conducted successfully in March 2020. Nonetheless, the subsidy provision ended in March 2021. The Sugimoto team could not meet the goal of making a drone capable of detecting mines in a stable fashion in the air.
Since the technology of detecting mines by using sound waves emitted by a drone has not been developed anywhere in the world, the project had the potential of becoming a leading example. Sugimoto had proposed the continuation of the subsidy in his working paper, but he could not receive a forward-looking response [from ATLA] and gave up applying for money again. “While it is common that basic research cannot produce results within a time frame of two to three years, we were subsidized only for two years and four months. The ATLA sets the toughest standards [with regards to funding] of ministries and agencies,” he said.
The ATLA’s funding program, which was launched in fiscal 2015, is aimed at providing funds over a span of several years for investment in basic research projects on advanced civilian technology that can contribute to national security. The government sets aside roughly 10 billion yen per year in the budget for the program and has selected about 20 projects through open applications. A large-scale project can be awarded about 2 billion yen, but the amount of money given to a small project conducted at the individual level tends to be curbed. Sugimoto was awarded about 8.7 million yen a year.
Once the subsidy period ends, projects at the individual level tend to become stalled as college laboratories alone cannot secure sufficient funding or facilities where they can conduct research. A senior ATLA official explains that “we want to support a range of research projects for a long period of time but we are short of funding.” Due to such half-baked funding, projects end without producing substantial results. Thus far not one of the ATLA funded projects has been selected for inclusion in the Ministry of Defense (MOD) budget for commercial use.
R&D accounts for only 3% of the nation’s defense spending for fiscal 2022, or 164.4 billion yen. The government allocates 4.2198 trillion yen in funding for science and technology, of which the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) accounts for 49%, followed by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) at 15%. The MOD comes sixth at 4%.
In addition to the poor cross-ministerial coordination, Kasumigaseki continues the postwar trend of shying away from military affairs. MOD requests are hardly reflected in R&D projects led by other ministries and agencies. The Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (chaired by Prime Minister Kishida), which oversees the government’s policies regarding science and technology, has ministers from MEXT, METI and the Ministry of Finance as members but not from the MOD.
The barriers between ministries and agencies prohibit the use of existing technology. Massive analytic computing of data is required to combat cyberattacks. The “Fugaku” supercomputer, which MEXT oversees, is equipped to handle the job, but the MOD has never been given an opportunity to use it.
Poor coordination between industry, academia and government is another obstacle. Academic circles are still shackled by the prewar remorse of “being forced to take part in war.”
The Science Council of Japan (SCJ) had consistently opposed any research for military purposes. In 2017, it expressed its concerns with the release of a statement saying that “the government’s excessive involvement in research is causing many problems.” A science researcher complains that “because liberal-tinged scholars with a background in the humanities and social sciences have a bigger say in the council, the opinions of science researchers who want government support tend to get submerged.”
In July, the SCJ expressed an opinion that effectively approved “dual-use” research in cutting-edge technologies, but emphasized that “our position remains unchanged.” How far it can cooperate with the government is unforeseeable.
“There is no boundary between military and non-military use when it comes to cutting-edge technology,” said Shimada Kazuhisa, former vice minister for defense. “Research spending must be increased substantially so as to promote the use of cutting-edge technology in the defense field.”
Within the government and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), calls for creating a Japanese Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are growing. R&D prowess is directly linked to national strength. Japan must build a mechanism that can make the best use of its potential technological capabilities. Failure to do so will make it difficult for Japan to weather the intense global competition between the great powers. (Abridged)