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Japan to develop underwater drone to defend remote islands against Chinese

An aerial photo of two Senkaku islands, Kitakojima, top, and Minamikojima.

COURTESY OF JAPAN DEFENSE MINISTRY

By MATTHEW M. BURKE AND AYA ICHIHASHI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 6, 2018

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Japan plans to develop a large underwater drone to monitor its remote islands as Tokyo continues to build up assets set to guard against Chinese incursion.

The unmanned submersible will be unveiled in a Ministry of Defense’s policy document that lays out the island nation’s five-year plan from April 2019, Japan’s Kyodo News service reported Monday, citing a “government source.” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet is slated to approve the policy in mid-December.

Officials have been mum on when the drone’s development will begin but an Iwakuni facility — where experiments to “detect sound waves” will take place in a large water tank — could be operational by fiscal year 2021, Kyodo reported. The submersible will be more than 32 feet long and “adaptable to various missions including surveillance.”

A Defense Ministry spokeswoman confirmed a funding request for research and development for the project in the fiscal year 2019 budget, which starts in April.

“The surrounding environment around Japan is pretty harsh, and for our national security, it is most important to raise our surveillance ability, including the sea,” MOD spokeswoman Akiko Asai told Stars and Stripes on Monday evening.

Japan has not decided “when, how and where” to utilize the underwater drone, Asai said. That decision will depend on the outcome of the project.

The underwater drones could be shared with multiple branches of the nation’s Self-Defense Forces.

Japan’s Mid-Term Defense Program — the document that includes the drone plan — and the National Defense Program Guidelines are scheduled to be approved by the cabinet on Dec. 18, Kyodo reported. The guidelines are expected to call for a broader strategy utilizing “unmanned equipment.”

The Self-Defense Forces are suffering from a “chronic shortage” of personnel, which may explain the move, Kyodo said.

News of the underwater drone came a week after the Defense Ministry said it was also developing supersonic glide bombs that can be launched from nearby islands to deter attacks in the region. Those projectiles are said to be less likely to be intercepted by anti-aircraft artillery and could be put into service by March 2026.

The resource-rich Senkakus in the East China Sea have long been a point of contention between the two neighbors, who boast the world’s second and third largest economies, respectively. The uninhabited island chain between Okinawa and Taiwan are claimed by Japan, Taiwan and China, which refers to them as Diaoyu.

The United States has long declined to take a position on the islands’ sovereignty; however, Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump have both declared the Senkakus will be protected under the U.S-Japan security alliance.

The East China Sea has been the scene of countless disputes in the air and at sea in recent years, with Chinese ships, submarines and aircraft buzzing Japan’s contiguous zone, just outside its territorial waters. The incidents often lead to protests from Japanese diplomats, which have been ineffectual in stopping the intrusions.

Maritime confrontations and jet interceptions between China and Japan have become commonplace in recent years, especially around the Senkakus. Five submarines have been spotted entering Japan’s contiguous zone since 2013, Defense Ministry officials said earlier this year. A Chinese frigate was last seen in the contiguous zone in June 2016.

The Japan Coast Guard said Chinese ships entered Japanese waters 114 times last year.

In response, Japan and its allies in Washington are reportedly drafting an “operations plan” for a combined response should China threaten the disputed islands in the East China Sea, Kyodo said, citing Japanese government officials. They hope to have the plan completed by March.

burke.matt@stripes.com

ichihashi.aya@stripes.com

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