Focus on Drones: How Technology in the Japanese Military Addresses Manpower Shortages

In 2023, the government of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida approved a record defense budget of $49.2 billion, according to Japan Forward.

25/07/2023 - 18:28
Source: Japan Forward
Source: Japan Forward

Furthermore, this year saw the adoption of the "National Defense Strategy" (NDS), outlining ambitious investments to expand defense and security capabilities over a 10-year period. The NDS places special emphasis on widespread integration of unmanned systems across all branches of the military. This stands in stark contrast to the modest approach towards drone utilization seen in 2018, when the Ministry of Defense limited purchases to American Global Hawk drones. Drones now take center stage in Kishida's government's rearmament strategy.

Reasons behind Japan's Budget Increase

As per Japan's Ministry of Defense, North Korea has launched over 150 missiles in the past decade, with over a third of them in the last year alone.

Moreover, conflicts over the disputed Senkaku Islands between China and Japan are escalating, especially amid heightened military tensions between China and other regional states.

Why the Emphasis on Drones

Growing regional tensions dictate a new approach to security. Despite increasing budgets, Japan's perennial demographic challenge remains a significant hurdle.

For comparison, the number of young people aged 18 to 26 was 17 million in 1994, dwindling to just 10.5 million by October 2021. This downward trend continues.

Since 2014, Japan's Self-Defense Forces have been unable to meet their recruitment quotas. To make military service more appealing, the armed forces are turning to pop culture-themed advertising campaigns, improving living conditions for recruits (the NDS earmarks up to $150 million for this purpose), and striving to strike a balance between work and personal life.

This issue goes beyond demographics. Japan's Self-Defense Forces find themselves competing with the private sector for talent. With Japan's remarkably low unemployment rate, recent graduates from high schools and universities have numerous options for employment, often offering superior incentives in terms of pay, benefits, stability, and working conditions.

While advantageous for Japan's economy, this presents a challenge for Self-Defense Force recruiters who must contend with private firms offering more attractive inducements.

Recruitment in other countries often benefits from a tradition of military service within families. While Japan shares this tradition, disruptions in birth rates and deep-rooted cultural aversions, stemming from Japan's experience in World War II, have affected it. This is the view of Andrew Oros, a political science professor at Washington College.

Innovations and Developments

Kishida's government positions unmanned defense systems as a key pillar of Japan's defense strategy. Drones, along with inter-domain tools (cyber and space assets) and "command and control" capabilities, are intended to grant Japan an asymmetrical advantage over adversaries.

The NDS outlines a variety of drone types. Reconnaissance UAVs are planned for use in the airspace, functioning as complementary assets to aviation. They will operate alongside aviation groups, acting as target designators during poor visibility and adverse weather conditions. Combat UAVs include standard attack drones.

Japan's maritime forces intend to focus on unmanned surface and underwater vehicles.

Unmanned ground vehicles can help safeguard bases and critical assets, while directed energy weapons will aid Self-Defense Forces in countering drone attacks.

However, extensive investment in drones may lead to significant organizational changes. Drones could assume a leading role in many attack and reconnaissance missions, formerly carried out by crewed helicopters.

Overall, Japan will allocate $1.37 billion for drones in the 2023 fiscal year, which began in April, according to a budget request review by the Ministry of Defense. A substantial portion of this funding is earmarked for developing indigenous systems.

Tactical long-endurance UAVs, capable of collecting intelligence and carrying armaments, will receive $50 million for development.

$21 million is allocated for an assessment project on types of barrage drones.

$160 million is planned for auxiliary drones launched from next-generation fighter aircraft. These drones will fly far ahead of aviation groups, transmitting adversary data for improved targeting. The NDS categorizes these systems as "munition," hinting at their disposable nature.

$334 million is intended for the development of unmanned surface and underwater vehicles. These include not only combat vessels but also drones capable of disarming maritime mines.

Japan increasingly relies on automation and technological innovation to address its manpower deficit. Employing AI for decision-making and wide-scale drone utilization will compensate for the chronic shortage of personnel and attract a small number of highly-paid, skilled professionals to support the burgeoning computerised military.



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