The Maritime Self-Defense Force is considering deploying fixed-wing unmanned reconnaissance aircraft that can take off from and land on destroyers, according to sources.
The MSDF also plans to conduct research on the equipment needed to conduct the drone operations, the sources said.
The MSDF has no experience flying fixed-wing aircraft from destroyers because doing so might draw allegations that it is operating an offensive aircraft carrier, which is banned by the Constitution’s war-renouncing Article 9.
Depending on its research, Japan might someday build an aircraft carrier equipped with fighter jets, the sources said.
But an official at the Defense Ministry said such studies will not lead to the deployment of fighter jets. Unmanned aircraft can be used in dangerous areas in emergencies, the official said.
With China increasing its presence in the East China Sea, the Self-Defense Forces are accelerating efforts to boost surveillance abilities. The related research costs in the MSDF’s fiscal 2014 budget request, however, only amount to some ¥2 million.
Over the next five years, the MSDF is expected to buy up to 19 such aircraft, possibly the RQ-21 small tactical unmanned aircraft used by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, the sources said.
The RQ-21 can fly continuously for up to some 24 hours, and uses remotely controlled routes.
In line with the constitutional constraints, the MSDF’s destroyers are not currently equipped with takeoff and landing equipment for aircraft. They can handle only helicopters and the U.S. Marine Corps’ MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor transport aircraft.