Test flights of a U.S. manufacturer’s large unmanned aircraft were conducted in Japan in May. During the flights, using the Iki Airport in Iki, Nagasaki Prefecture, as a base, the aircraft’s capability and effectiveness are being tested with an eye toward nonmilitary uses such as maritime patrol and survey, support for sea search and rescue, and disaster response.
If the government introduces the aircraft in the future, it is possible for it to be used also for guarding Japanese territorial waters including those around the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture or for national defense purposes. The Yomiuri Shimbun looked into the possibilities of the state-of-the-art technology and the challenges that await.
For disasters, rescues and industries
Under a clear and cloudless sky, a white fuselage with long outstretched wings slowly began moving. The strong winds that had been blowing up until the previous day were gone. The aircraft finally took off from the runway and appeared to be sucked into the blue sky along with the loud sound of its propeller.
The U.S.-made unmanned aircraft, which began trial flights on May 10, is called the MQ-9B Guardian. Made by U.S. drone manufacturer General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, it has an overall length of 11 meters and a wingspan of 20 meters. The experiments were conducted for about three weeks, in cooperation with the Iki city government, the Nagasaki prefectural government and relevant central government offices. This is the first time for the aircraft to be flown in Japan.
The main aim of the experiment is to actually fly the aircraft to learn how useful it is in the areas of (1) meteorological, disaster and oceanographic observation, (2) sea rescues, and (3) use for aviation, communication and industry.
The Guardian is a naval monitoring variant of the Predator combat drone, which is armed with missiles and has been used by the U.S. military in the Middle East and other regions. It is said that around 70 models from the Predator series, including the Guardian, are continuously flying 24 hours a day throughout the world.
The Guardian possesses a high capability for maritime domain awareness, or MDA. Using its radar systems, such as surface search radar and synthetic aperture radar, it apprehends the conditions of multiple ships from the sky and discerns suspicious ships based on the signals issued from the ships’ automatic identification system, or AIS. Regardless of whether it is day or night, it can film video from over long distances using an optical camera and an infrared camera installed on the bottom of the aircraft’s nose. In the United States, the Guardian has been used for about a decade for purposes such as controlling drug smuggling and illegal fishing, and information collection during natural disasters such as hurricanes and forest fires.
During the first flight on May 10, a monitor set on the ground showed clear images including the vessel names of cargo ships cruising around Iki and movements of the crew members on the decks.
During the experiment period, teams made up of a pilot and a cameraman rotated in operating the aircraft from the ground and also navigating by satellite.
The Guardian was scheduled to be flown over the Genkai nuclear power plant in Saga Prefecture and the Fugendake volcanic peak in Nagasaki Prefecture, as well as over the southern waters of the Yamatotai fishing ground off the Noto Peninsula, where illegal operations by ships, suspected to be North Korean, have repeatedly occurred.
Terry Kraft, vice president of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, said on May 10 that failure was not an option because this was their first experiment in Japan.
‘Premise is for peaceful use’
In Japan, the U.S. Air Force already operates the RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned surveillance aircraft from Yokota Air Base in Fussa and neigboring towns in Tokyo and from Misawa Air Base in Misawa, Aomori Prefecture. The Defense Ministry is also planning to introduce the Global Hawk for use by Japan. Whereas the Global Hawk conducts surveillance from high altitudes of about 15,000 meters or more, the Guardian flies at altitudes of 1,500-13,000 meters or more, so the altitudes of their activities basically do not overlap.
The local city government accepted this experiment. Iki Mayor Hirokazu Shirakawa explained, “The experiment’s premise is for peaceful use and its duration is limited.”
If the central government introduces unmanned aircraft like the Predator and the Guardian, it is likely that these aircraft would be expected to be used not only to guard territorial waters, mainly led by the Japan Coast Guard, but also for purposes in the fields of national security.
It is conceivable that the unmanned aircraft would be used for ballistic missile defense and other purpose in the future, as well as for integrated air defense, in which a network connects manned and unmanned aircraft such as fighters and airborne early warning aircraft.
In April, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump announced steps to relax export restrictions for U.S.-made unmanned aircraft. In the background of this decision lies the situation that China has been expanding its power in the world’s unmanned aircraft market. Some experts believe it is technologically possible for China to take control of the unmanned aircraft it sold to third countries and to attack U.S. military bases. On April 10, the Self-Defense Forces found an aircraft flying to the north of the Senkakus and SDF aircraft scrambled to respond. It was thought to be an unmanned Chinese reconnaissance aircraft of the BZK-005 type.
However, introducing the Guardian will face many hurdles in Japan. The biggest issue is a legal one. During this demonstration experiment, the Guardian, although it is equipped with a collision avoidance system, was to be accompanied by a manned plane. This is because Japanese aviation law categorizes the Guardian as a “pilotless aircraft,” which must be watched through visual observation.
Automation of equipment in which manpower is not needed or can be saved is advancing in security fields around the world. Among U.S.-made unmanned aircraft, unmanned helicopters that can be loaded onto ships, such as the MQ-8C Fire Scout, are viewed as candidates to be supplied to Japan.
It cannot be denied that Japan’s measures for unmanned aircraft have fallen behind. It is necessary to think seriously about whether to use unmanned aircraft from several viewpoints, including those of the legal system, aircraft operations and budget.
By Tatsuya Fukumoto