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Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force looking for surveillance UAV


The Japanese defence ministry plans to introduce about 20 large, unmanned helicopters to the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers and other ships. The helicopter model is expected to be selected in fiscal 2022, with the procurement starting in fiscal 2023.


japan looking for maritime uav mq 8c fire scout Northrop Grumman MQ-8C Fire Scout (Picture source: US Navy)


Ship-based unmanned aircraft can monitor faraway foreign vessels and other objects that cannot be captured by shipboard radar, which would expand the area over which a single MSDF vessel is able to cover in its surveillance. Unmanned aircraft, which refers to planes and helicopters that can operate without onboard human pilots, can also fly at night and in bad weather, giving them a broader range of operation than manned aircraft. They also can be operated remotely or autonomously.

The unmanned helicopters would likely be deployed to Izumo- and Hyuga-class destroyers, as well as to a new destroyer with minesweeping capabilities.

The MQ-8C Fire Scout is considered as the leading candidate. Made by Northrop Grumman Corp. of the United States, the 12.6-meter-long, 2.7-meter-wide unmanned helicopter can detect the movements of ships and other objects from an altitude of about 5,000 meters. The MQ-8C airframe is based on the Bell 407, while the avionics and other systems are developed from those used on the MQ-8B Fire Scout. The MQ-8C has an autonomy of up to 12 hours with a range of 1,227 nmi (around 2270 km).

In July 2018, Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 1 concluded the initial operational test and evaluation of the MQ-8C, conducted aboard the USS Coronado. The MQ-8C was declared mission capable on 28 June 2019.

In December last year, the Cabinet decided to introduce three unmanned helicopters as part of the five-year Medium Term Defense Program for fiscal 2019 to 2023. The government wants to create a force of 20 such helicopters over the next decade or so. Under the current legal framework, operating unmanned aircraft must be monitored by direct eyesight from manned aircraft or other locations. So the government will need to study and affect a change to the law to allow unmanned helicopters to operate independently.