The introduction of unmanned fighter jets has been considered to succeed the Air Self-Defense Force’s aging F-2s, which are expected to start being retired within two decades, as part of efforts to reduce development costs, according to government officials.
The proposal was made earlier this year by Taro Kono, who was defense chief until last month before he became administrative reform minister in new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s Cabinet.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said discussions in the Defense Ministry were, however, suspended in the wake of the government’s decision in June to scrap its plan to deploy the U.S.-developed Aegis Ashore land-based defense system, designed to counter missile threats from North Korea.
Japan plans to start work on a new fighter jet in fiscal 2024 together with U.S. or U.K. companies, and aims to introduce it in fiscal 2035 when the current F-2s are scheduled to start being retired.
The ministry estimates that at least ¥1.2 trillion is needed to develop a manned fighter jet, while a drone — which has no space for a pilot and requires no safety equipment — costs much less to build.
The price of the U.S. Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle is believed to be around ¥1.5 billion, about one-tenth that of the F-22 stealth fighter.
While holding the defense portfolio, Kono insisted it made more sense to procure less-expensive unmanned aerial vehicles than spend the extra money for manned jets, according to the officials.
But the idea constituted a minority opinion within the ministry, the officials said, adding that such an import-dependent approach could weaken the defense industry in the country, which lacks know-how in developing advanced drone technology.
In the national defense guidelines adopted in December 2018, the ministry said it would “promote manpower saving and automation by leveraging technological innovations such as artificial intelligence.”
But Japan’s development of drones for defense applications is not yet on the horizon.
Meanwhile, the nation’s neighbors have been stepping up efforts to develop unmanned aerial vehicles.
China showcased a GJ-11 stealth attack drone during a military parade in October last year to mark the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding.
Russia also succeeded in flying an S-70 Okhotnik unmanned strike aerial vehicle in August 2019.