Titled ‘The latest developments in policies regarding drones,’ a seminar hosted by the Japan Institute for New System of Society (SSK), was held in Tokyo on 15 December.

The event featured a high-powered delegation of speakers from academia as well as Japan’s military and civilian government agencies.

One of the themes was the Japan Self Defense Forces’ (JSDF) new approach to dual use technology and military-civil cooperation, which was introduced by the head of Research and Development at the Japan Air Self Defense Force’s (JASDF) Air Development and Test Command, Colonel Toru Furukawa.

A key focus of Furukawa’s discussion was an initiative to facilitate direct engagement between industry, academia and government to resolve issues identified during testing, and accelerate the procurement and mass production of new drones.

The initiative comes on the back of a spate of invitations to Japanese industry for bids for new types of drones and drone-related technology under the newly established Rapid Acquisition Program.The program, built in response to recommendations from the last National Defence Strategy (December 2022) and its accompanying Defence Buildup Program, aims to reequip Japan’s self-defence forces for ‘new ways of warfare’ by accelerating the deployment of drones, as well as Artificial Iintelligence (AI) and next generation information and communications equipment, that ‘incorporate advanced civilian technology. Part of the initiative involves revising testing procedures to emphasise direct dialogue with civilian technology providers.

Drones have been the dominant category for submissions under the Rapid Acquisition Program. These include: man-portable and truck based assault UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles); tactical, heavy, equipment specific and unconventional resupply unmanned aircraft systems; warning, surveillance and electronic warfare UAVs; long-endurance UAVs fitted with electro-optical/Infra-Red (EO/IR) imaging systems as well as synthetic aperture radar (SAR) or electronic support measures (ESM) for target detection and tracking; decoys, and; unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) (including walking UGVs) for reconnaissance, assault support and autonomous patrols.

There has also been a focus on using AI to coordinate drone swarms and pair drones with manned aircraft.

Counter-drone systems have also been a target of procurement under the Rapid Acquisition Program, with a focus on technologies for countering the threat of drone swarms, including high output lasers, high output microwaves, and advanced AI-powered threat evaluation and weapon assignment (TEWA) systems. According to reports in Nikkei Xtech, Mitsubishi is developing a drone radio frequency (RF) jammer that can counter multiple drones at a range of three kilometres, while Toshiba Infrastructure Systems and Solutions is developing lasers, RF sensors and drone integration systems.

The development of the program has come as Japan Self Defense Forces have scrambled to diversify drone capabilities in response to rapid changes in modern warfare identified in the Russia-Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh wars, as well as evolving threats from China and North Korea. Japanese officials also see expanding the use of drones as a way of overcoming human resource shortfalls and pilot fatigue, improving cost effectiveness, and developing asymmetric capabilities to respond to China’s military rise.

The program also comes in response to a technological sovereignty push and fears that Japan’s traditional procurements regime is locking out new players in cutting edge emerging industries, and keeping Japan from keeping up with the pace of technological change. In 2022 ongoing funding was announced for testing long-endurance (¥4.7 billion = A$49 million), research on an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) (¥6 billion = A$62 million), and conceptual research on combat support UAVs (¥10.1 billion = A$105 million), but the programs were criticised as being too slow to bring new technology into operational use.

In July this year the JSDF publicly revealed the formation of a UAV trial unit, which is currently equipped with a US-made MQ-9B SeaGuardian, based at the Japan Maritime Self Defence Force’s (JMSDF) Hachinohe Air Base, near Hokkaido.

Edit: Australian dollar budget figures have been updated as of January 8 2024, where there was previously an error in conversion.

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