Ukraine’s success prompts Japan to consider drones as part of its security strategy


The Japanese Ministry of Defense is considering incorporating attack drones into its plans from its 2023 fiscal year. On March 30, 2022, Japan announced it would develop unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) capable of military strikes.

The war in Ukraine played a role in this decision. Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones supplied to the Ukrainian Armed Forces were used in the early days of the Russian invasion. UAF drones have targeted surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) deployed by Russian troops, and the UAF has indicated that the radio-controlled unmanned TB2 has demonstrated highly effective combat capabilities.

While the drone warfare was already drawing the attention of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF), the allocated resources were far from sufficient. Additionally, Japan’s use of drones is limited to non-lethal tasks such as reconnaissance and related purposes.

Employed in Ukraine

From around the third day of the Russian invasion, Ukrainian forces used drones in attacks on Russian SAM sites. UAF also reported that drones successfully delayed Russia’s logistical support by destroying transport vehicles on the road, thereby preventing material from reaching the Russian front lines.

Videos of consumer drones operated by civilians have been posted online by the UAF, showing the damage Russia is causing in the country. Thus, UAVs owned by activists served in the information war with Moscow and helped attract support from other countries.

Observers have been keen to note the effectiveness of Ukraine’s electronic warfare devices, which are deployed to take out Russian drones. Although Russian forces have conducted UAV attacks on Ukrainian drone bases, the attempts have been thwarted.

The UAF’s electronics successfully blocked Russian drone communications within a kilometer of the ground, the main zone of activity for UAV operations. As a result, Russian forces were prevented from taking control of Ukraine’s airspace.

Interested in drone capabilities

In fact, Japan’s SDF has paid attention to UAV capabilities. As Chief of Staff Yoshihide Yoshida of the Ground Self-Defense Force said on March 17, “There is no doubt that reconnaissance and attack capabilities would be militarily advantageous with a variety of low-cost ‘drone swarms’.” Yoshida holds the highest military rank in the GSDF.

The use of drones by the SDF has so far been strictly limited. Japan’s unarmed UAVs were limited to smaller models with wingspans of one to two meters.

SDF drones have been used to assess damage from natural disasters. They have also provided a better understanding of conditions in tactical exercises. Three large-scale reconnaissance drones capable of flying over long distances were deployed at the Air Self-Defense Force’s Misawa Air Base in Aomori Prefecture in March 2022.

The Ministry of Defense has earmarked JPY30 million (US$245,000) for research into the performance and fuselage design of small attack drones manufactured by other countries as part of its fiscal 2023 budget. Defense Department officials in charge of the program say the budget for next fiscal year is only “for the initial phase of studying the basic operations” of drones capable of attacking enemy forces.

Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force flies a drone in a search operation at a disaster site for the first time. September 8, 2018, Hokkaido (photographed by Kotaro Hikono)

Japan’s security situation

professor Tomoyuki Furutani, a national security expert at Keio University’s Policy Management Department, has analyzed footage from the UAV combat zone. Furutani said, “Rather than sending flesh-and-blood humans onto battlefields, robots that are inherently replaceable carry more weight in modern wars, especially in societies with shrinking populations.”

Do attacks on enemy drones violate Japan’s basic security stance that force must be used “in defense only”? A debate continues over the permissible roles of armed UAVs.

It seems necessary for the Japanese government to formulate a clear position on the use of attack-capable UAV drones in the revision of the country’s national security strategy, which the government is due to undertake by the end of 2022.


(Read the article in Japanese with this link.)

Author: Toyohiro Ichioka


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