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Defense Ministry to develop large underwater drone to monitor remote islands, government sources say

Kyodo

Amid China’s military expansion and assertiveness in regional waters, Japan plans to develop a large underwater drone that will automatically navigate the ocean to collect information, a government source said Sunday.

The Defense Ministry has decided to mention the plan, which is aimed at boosting capabilities to guard remote islands, in its policy document outlining Japan’s defense capabilities through the five years from April 2019.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet aims to approve the defense policy document in mid-December, according to the source.

There has been a growing need for Japan to strengthen defenses around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea as Beijing, which calls the uninhabited islets the Diaoyus, aggressively presses its ownership claims.

The Mid-Term Defense Program will say that Japan needs to develop “unmanned diving machine” technology that is “adaptable to various missions including surveillance,” the source said.

Based on this policy direction, the ministry will start working toward the development of an underwater drone that is over 10 meters long.

Final arrangements are currently being made for the new midterm policy and revisions to the country’s National Defense Program Guidelines, set to be approved together by the Cabinet on Dec. 18, several government sources said.

The guidelines, which were last approved in 2013, set out Japan’s desired defense posture over the span of about 10 years, while the midterm program gives more specifics on defense spending and procurement plans.

A chronic shortage of Self-Defense Forces personnel has also contributed to the ministry’s view that developing the underwater drone is necessary.

But as technology advances such a drone could be equipped with torpedoes and turned into a powerful weapon, which may cause public concern.

The new guidelines are expected to state that Japan needs to promote “unmanned equipment.”

For the development, the ministry will conduct demonstration experiments to detect sound waves in a huge water tank at a facility in Iwakuni, in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

The test facility will begin operations in fiscal 2021 at the earliest, although the timing for the start of developing the drone is not yet known.