Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force may begin flying unmanned surveillance drones from destroyers at sea as a possible prelude to procuring aircraft carriers, local media is reporting.
According to The Japan Times, “The Maritime Self-Defense Force is considering deploying fixed-wing unmanned reconnaissance aircraft that can take off from and land on destroyers.” If the plan is approved, the MSDFs intend to research these operations extensively.
“Depending on its research, Japan might someday build an aircraft carrier equipped with fighter jets,” The Japan Times report said, citing numerous unnamed sources. No details were provided about the affiliations of the sources that might help evaluate the credibility of their claims. However, the paper did report that a source in the Defense Ministry had said that the studies will not lead the MSDF to operate fighter jets from surface ships in the future. The Defense Ministry source did say that unmanned drones would be deployed on the ships, however, because these can operate in “dangerous areas in emergencies.”
The 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. As the report noted, although the MSDF currently flies helicopters from some of its ships, it has no experience flying fixed wing aircraft from its vessels because such a move could be construed as an offensive military capability, which Japan’s constitution prohibits.
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. The Japan Times report also quoted its sources as saying that Japan hopes to procure 19 of the new RQ-21 Blackjack small tactical unmanned drones currently being tested by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.
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.