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Unmanned aerial, ground and underwater vehicles are increasingly being used for national security in Japan and other countries, with the lack of training requirements and risk to human life seen as major benefits.

Autonomous vehicles are seen as indispensable to Japan, which has a rapidly aging population and low birthrate. In the National Defense Program Guidelines adopted in late 2018, the government pledged to promote the Self-Defense Forces’ use of artificial intelligence and other technological innovations for “automation and manpower-saving,” with accelerating population declines now making the recruitment of SDF members a pressing issue.

The Defense Ministry has launched a project to develop unmanned aircraft to escort the new fighter jet Japan plans to deploy as the successor to the Air Self-Defense Force’s existing F-2s in fiscal 2035 at the earliest.

Equipped with AI, the planned unmanned aircraft would be able to detect enemy fighters and missiles, fire missiles, stage electronic attacks and serve as a decoy to disorient enemy missiles.

The ASDF will begin testing a plan to create the nation’s first “smart base” using 5G mobile technology at its Chitose Air Base in Hokkaido later in the current fiscal year, which ends in March 2022. The experiment will utilize drones and unmanned motor vehicles to keep watch at the base in place of ASDF staff and analyze collected data through the use of AI.

The ASDF will also study the use of unmanned aircraft to detect weapons capable of flying at hypersonic speeds of over Mach 5. Such weapons are under development by countries including China, Russia and North Korea. Specifically, the ASDF envisions keeping sensor-equipped aircraft in the air to quickly detect missiles that are difficult to spot from the ground.

For its part, the Maritime Self-Defense Force has already deployed an autonomous device to search for naval mines.

Countries around the world are competing to install AI in unmanned security devices, but ethical concerns over AI-based lethal autonomous weapons (LAWs) remain.

In 2019, signatory nations of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, an accord under the United Nations to prohibit or restrict the use of inhumane weapons, agreed on international guidelines for LAWs for the first time. The guidelines failed to become a legally binding agreement, however, due to opposition by military powers such as the United States and Russia.

An AI-based LAW made in Turkey was used during a battle in Libya’s civil war in the spring of 2020, according to a report published by an expert panel of the U.N. Security Council in June. Although it is not known whether anyone was killed or injured, the attack is seen as the world’s first confirmed use of such a weapon.

Japan maintains that it will not develop any autonomous weapons powered by AI. With regards to the unmanned aircraft the Defense Ministry is developing, the government plans to ensure humans are in control of the use of missiles.

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