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Japan may buy U.S. drones

 
 
 
 
 
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Fly in the sky: The Global Hawk, an unmanned spy plane, is unveiled at Edwards Air Force Base in California in January 2009.

Spy planes sought amid regional rise in tensions.

The Defense Ministry is looking to buy three Global Hawk reconnaissance aircraft from the United States to deal with China’s militarization and North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, Self-Defense Force and ministry sources said Sunday.

The ministry hopes to insert the plan for buying the unmanned high-altitude aircraft into its new Mid-Term Defense Program for fiscal 2011-2015. The program will be based on a new National Defense Program Outline the government is poised to adopt at the end of this year.

Equipped with sophisticated cameras and highly sensitive communications-receiving abilities, the Global Hawk can fly at an altitude of roughly 18,000 meters — about twice as high as commercial aircraft can — for just over 30 hours on autopilot.

The data it gathers can be sent almost simultaneously to command facilities on the ground. Its ability to fly at high altitudes also allows it to peer more deeply into the territory of such prickly adversaries as North Korea and China.

The plan is expected to get a boost from the diplomatic friction triggered last month when a Chinese trawler and Japan Coast Guard cutters bumped each other near disputed islands in the East China Sea, the sources said.

The Global Hawk costs about $50 million (roughly ¥4.15 billion), including equipment, so the sum for three aircraft would come to more than ¥12 billion. The ministry estimates it would cost tens of billions of yen more to build ground facilities to control the drones, the sources said.

The ministry has been researching unmanned surveillance aircraft since fiscal 2003 and was even thinking of producing a Japan-made aircraft. Given the Global Hawk’s advantages in performance and costs, however, the ministry is now looking to import them, the sources said.

The U.S. government has been sounding out Japan about acquisition possibilities through multiple channels, they said.

Together with its ability to fly longer than its manned counterparts, the Global Hawk is likely to boost Japan’s ability to gather intelligence and monitor its neighbors. The ministry hopes to use the aircraft, which does not have offensive capability, to help defend remote islands and counter suspicious ships in or near Japanese waters. It is also looking at the possibility of using them as part of its missile defense shield, the sources said.

The ministry has yet to decide which section should be put in charge of unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, partly because officials are concerned that money will be cut from existing programs if the new program comes under their authority, they said.

The midterm defense buildup plan says, that from the standpoint of strengthening Japan’s intelligence-gathering capabilities, the ministry will take “necessary measures after considering” acquiring unmanned reconnaissance aircraft.

If the ministry has trouble sorting out which section will be in charge, there is a possibility that any plans for unmanned reconnaissance aircraft will remain hazy in the new midterm defense buildup plan, the sources said.

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