Japan Plans to Add Unmanned Helicopters to Maritime Self-Defense Force Capabilities

Japan’s government plans to bring 20 large, unmanned aerial helicopters into service with the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) as a force-multiplying means to monitoring China’s maritime expansion and operations around the disputed Senkaku Islands.

Over the course of two decades, China has continued to build up the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) as it seeks to push out beyond the first island chain and cultivate formidable blue water navy capabilities. The smattering of rocky outcroppings in the East China Sea – called the Senkaku by Japan and the Diaoyu by China – have served as a source of disagreement between Toyko and Beijing for years.

This territorial dispute became increasingly heated in 2010 when the Japanese Coast Guard arrested a Chinese trawler captain off the disputed islets after he rammed JCG ships. The incident touched off a diplomatic crisis whereby China used its trade resources (in the form of a ban on the export of Chinese-mined rare earth minerals to Japan) and fanned anti-Japan protests across the country.

China’s persistent use of fishing boats as a form of intelligence-gathering and unofficial militia serves to fan the flames of tension in the East and South China seas, where Beijing stakes its claims aggressively by shaping the de facto situation on land and at sea through coercive action.

Against this backdrop, Tokyo has crafted a national security and defense approach that makes maritime awareness and amphibious response to armed incursion of Japan’s outlying islands a high priority. The unmanned helicopters planned for acquisition help fill the maritime awareness and early warning niche by adding capacity to the MSDF and a capability that can take over in areas of responsibility when manned aircraft are placed at greater risk (inclement weather, nighttime surveillance, etc.).

The Abe government aims to procure the unmanned helicopters over a 10-year period, with the acquisition of the first three units outlined in the Medium Term Defense Program covering the five-year period between 2019 and 2023 unveiled in December 2018.

According to a report in the Japanese media, the Northrop Grumman MQ-8C Fire Scout is already considered a leading platform to fill the MSDF requirement.

Unmanned Navy helicopter on a flight deck with two crew members

MQ-8C Fire Scout aboard the Independence Class Littoral Combat Ship USS Coronado (LCS-4). U.S. Navy photo by Ens. Jalen Robinson/RELEASED

About Daniel Darling

Dan Darling is a senior analyst covering both the Europe and Asia-Pacific regions for Forecast International's International Military Markets group.

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