February 21, 2017      

In the wake of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent visit with new President Donald Trump, many observers have been speculating about how Japan’s trade and military relationships with the U.S. will change and how they will affect the rest of Asia. Robotics and Japanese military drones are likely beneficiaries.

Last July, Japan opened the floodgates for a new era of defense spending. Japanese voters gave Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a majority, which will allow him to “revise” the constitution — a constitution that has outlawed war since 1947.

The economic and military rise of China, territorial tensions around the South China Sea, and shifting U.S. priorities are all responsible for Japan’s push towards re-militarization. This doesn’t bode well for global peace, but it does bode well for robotics — especially Japanese military drones, which Tokyo has placed at the forefront of its strategy.

In mid-2014, in the face of a growing Chinese threat, the Japanese military announced that it would spend $372 million to develop and expand its “non-existent” unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) sector, a 300 percent increase. This includes purchasing foreign drones and developing indigenous ones.

Months later, the U.S. approved a $1.2 billion sale of three Northrop Grumman Global Hawk drones to Japan. This enhanced Japan’s surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

Business Takeaways:

  • Japan has been working with the U.S. and Israel on developing Japanese military drones for surveillance and even autonomous attacks.
  • At the same time, Tokyo is working to make sure that it retains the homegrown ability to develop robotics and UAV technology.
  • Japan could become a net exporter of military drones, exoskeletons, and robotic systems.

Aiming high with Japanese military drones

Since then, the Japanese military drone strategy has grown more ambitious — and indigenous.

Last August, Tokyo unveiled a record military budget of $51 billion for 2017. In addition, it said that it wants “drone fighter jets” within the next two decades, partly because Lockheed Martin and Japan have had disputes over the construction and sale of the F-35. Japan plans to develop an unmanned surveillance aircraft in 10 years and then an unmanned fighter jet 10 years after that.

Japanese military drones could be in service by the 2040s.

Schematic of Japanese military drones operating together. (Source: Inverse)

Last fall, Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) unveiled its plans for the future. Between 2040 and 2050, it wants Japanese military drones that can fly in formation with human pilots and autonomously carry out objectives such attacking a target. Within the next 15 to 20 years, JASDF wants ballistic-missile defense (BMD) drones that use sensors to track incoming missiles.

Japan’s drone focus connects with one of its key strategies. The “Zero Casualty Battle System” calls for using technology such as exoskeletons to protect human lives whenever possible. Will robotics and drones lead the Japanese government to invest even more money in this strategy?

More on Security Robotics and Drones:

Multilateral partnerships, but indigenous capability

The U.S. isn’t the only country supporting Japan’s newfound drone focus. So is Israel. Last year, government sources in Japan reported that Tokyo and Tel Aviv are in talks to begin joint research on unmanned surveillance planes. They also said that Japan wants to go beyond this and conduct joint research into “unmanned attack planes and unmanned fighter jets.”

Japanese military drones are intended to rely on domestically-supplied technology.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with U.S. President Donald Trump. Despite the nations’ alliance, Japan wants to be self-reliant for military robotics.

What does all of this mean?

First, Japan appears to be focused on indigenous innovations. The same way India is manufacturing its own indigenous aircraft carrier, so too Japan looking to develop and produce its own military drones.

However, unlike India, which is receiving support from Russia and the U.S., Japan is pursuing its autonomous ambitions largely on its own. Considering Japan has long been a leader in technical innovation, will this translate into cutting-edge Japanese military drones and robots?

Second, drones are a long-term strategy for Japan. As Japanese militarization picks up pace, the government is likely to continue pouring large amounts of money into the sector. This could have the twofold effect of making Japanese military drones a new growth industry and turning Japan into a net exporter of military robotics to Asia. Who will Japan sell to — the Philippines, India, Vietnam?

In a nutshell, Japan wants a lean and mean military. And, robotics is at the forefront of this strategy.

As Asia becomes more volatile and geopolitical power shifts, military robotics is one of the few markets that will benefit as a result.

And in Japan, this “benefit” is just beginning.