Tokyo to develop large underwater drone

Japan plans to develop a large underwater drone that will automatically navigate the ocean to collect information.

Japan will be looking to counter China’s growing assertiveness and military presence across the South China Sea. 

Background

International relations between the People’s Republic of China and the State of Japan have been strongly influenced throughout history by China with its language, architecture, culture, religion, philosophy, and law. In the mid-19th century, China opened trade relations with the West. On the other hand, Japan began its active process of Westernization during the Meiji Restoration in 1868 adopting Western European culture. During this time, Japan started to view China as an old-fashioned civilization, incapable of shielding itself against Western influences, partly due to the First and Second Opium Wars and Anglo-French Expeditions from the 1860s to the 1880s.

The Chinese government believes that the relationship between the two nations has been strained mainly because of their wartime past. China-Japan relations have been considerably better under Shinzo Abe as Prime Minister of Japan since September 2006. However, in the early 2010s, the relations deteriorated, when Japan accused China of withholding its reserves of valuable rare-earth elements. The dispute at the Senkaku Islands also resulted in several aggressive encounters in the East China Sea.

Despite the ongoing tensions, China and Japan have been progressively improving their relationships by focusing on developing healthy ties and aiming at a new start. Presently, both nations are cooperating in numerous areas, including boosting global trade and economic activities. They are also working together on the One Belt One Road Initiative and setting up maritime and air contact system to enhance communication. 

Analysis 

Amid China’s military expansion and assertiveness in regional waters, Japan plans to develop a large underwater drone that will automatically navigate the ocean to collect information, a government source said Sunday.

The Defense Ministry has decided to mention the plan, which is aimed at boosting capabilities to guard remote islands, in its policy document outlining Japan’s defense capabilities through the five years from April 2019.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet aims to approve the defense policy document in mid-December.

There has been a growing need for Japan to strengthen defenses around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea as Beijing, which calls the uninhabited islets the Diaoyus, aggressively presses its ownership claims.

The Mid-Term Defense Program will say that Japan needs to develop “unmanned diving machine” technology that is “adaptable to various missions including surveillance,” the source said.

Based on this policy direction, the ministry will start working toward the development of an underwater drone that is over 10 meters long.

Final arrangements are currently being made for the new midterm policy and revisions to the country’s National Defense Program Guidelines, set to be approved together by the Cabinet on Dec. 18, several government sources said.

The guidelines, which were last approved in 2013, set out Japan’s desired defense posture over the span of about 10 years, while the midterm program gives more specifics on defense spending and procurement plans.

A chronic shortage of Self-Defense Forces personnel has also contributed to the ministry’s view that developing the underwater drone is necessary. However, as technology advances such a drone could be equipped with torpedoes and turned into a powerful weapon, which may cause public concern.

The new guidelines are expected to state that Japan needs to promote “unmanned equipment.”

For the development, the ministry will conduct demonstration experiments to detect sound waves in a huge water tank at a facility in Iwakuni, in Yamaguchi Prefecture. The test facility will begin operations in fiscal 2021 at the earliest, although the timing for the start of developing the drone is not yet known. 

Assessment

Our assessment is that it remains to be seen whether the relationship between China and Japan would remain stable due to their strong bilateral trades or if it could collapse due to historical rivalry and enmity. We believe that Japan is now starting to leverage its temporary technological advantage over China in developing smarter and more efficient surveillance and weapon platforms.