Japan considering Global Hawk to keep eye on North Korea.

Global Hawk mission footprint

The Defense Ministry has decided to begin full-scale research from fiscal 2011 into whether unmanned aerial vehicles should be introduced for surveillance of China and North Korea, government sources said.

The ministry will send senior Self-Defense Forces officers to study how the U.S. military uses and maintains the state-of-the-art high-altitude Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, the sources said.

The introduction of unmanned drones would beef up the SDF’s ability to monitor the Chinese Navy’s rapidly expanding activities in the seas around southern Japan, as well as the volatile Korean Peninsula.

The ministry’s research will focus on assessing the drone’s merits, including cost-effectiveness, according to the sources.

The drones, which can make long flights and do not put military personnel at risk, are widely used by U.S. and British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The German military plans to begin using drones soon.

The government has already expressed willingness to introduce surveillance drones. The midterm defense buildup program from 2011, approved by the Cabinet on Dec. 17, clearly stipulates the ministry will study a comprehensive surveillance system over a wide range of areas, taking into consideration a variety of new technologies, including space-based systems and unmanned drones, that would allow it to flexibly respond to the changing security environment.

The ministry plans to make a decision on the drones by the end of fiscal 2015, the last fiscal year for the latest midterm defense buildup plan, the sources explained.

The Global Hawk used by the U.S. Air Force can fly at an altitude of about 18,000 meters, far higher than the cruising altitude of passenger planes. Using high-performance sensors and radar, it can monitor an area with a maximum radius of about 550 kilometers. And since there is no flight crew, it can stay aloft for more than 30 hours. After the massive earthquake in January in Haiti, U.S. drones were used extensively to survey the damage.

The Global Hawk is about 14.5 meters in length, with a wingspan of about 40 meters. If deployed, it will be the first large unmanned aircraft deployed by the SDF. One Global Hawk, without sensors, costs about 2.5 billion yen.

According to a senior ministry official, three reconnaissance drones would be necessary to cover all of Japan’s territory and surrounding waters.

When the cost of ground facilities, including headquarters, is factored in, the initial layout is estimated to be several tens of billions of yen, the ministry official said. As these are unmanned vehicles, post-deployment costs will gradually decline after the steep initial price tag, ministry sources said.

However, some senior SDF officials have expressed concern over the introduction of unmanned drones, saying it could result in cuts in SDF personnel. Currently, the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s P-3C reconnaissance planes are Japan’s main surveillance aircraft.