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Japan considers slashing crewed aircraft numbers in favour of UAVs

Japan considers slashing aircraft numbers in favour of UAVs


Koji Miyake | Only 38 OH-1 reconnaissance helicopters were delivered, and the type may face premature retirement. 

The Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) will drastically reduce the number of crewed aircraft in exchange for introducing UAVs, according to 9 December reports from Yomiuri Shimbun.

The reports, believed to be sourced from senior government or military officials, suggest the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF) will rapidly introduce UAS whilst cutting AH-64D and AH-1S attack helicopters and OH-1 reconnaissance helicopters.

Only 13 AH-64Ds are in service with the JGSDF, and the number of AH-1S has reduced from 90 to 47. The service has not proceeded with plans to upgrade helicopters to the AH-64E configuration or introduce a successor to the AH-64D.

The introduction of the OH-1 was halted after 38 aircraft, and the OH-6D reconnaissance helicopter was retired. Time appears to have run out to find successor attack and reconnaissance helicopters.

Thus far, the JGSDF has only operated reconnaissance UAVs, including the ScanEagle. The introduction of attack UAVs is in the planning stages.

The JGSDF has not done enough research on uncrewed operations to cover all missions that helicopters used to carry out, so plans for eliminating attack/reconnaissance helicopters may be too hasty. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) will introduce the MQ-9B SeaGuardian, while P-1 patrol aircraft and SH-60K helicopter numbers will be reduced. The Japan Coast Guard (JCG) also started operating the MQ-9B in October 2022.

Relations between the JMSDF and JCG are sometimes strained, but they have shared facilities and information on the MQ-9B.

The JMSDF plans to equip the MQ-9B with sonobuoy sensors to support ASW missions. Using the aircraft in this role may be challenging as the US has only just started testing these capabilities.

The Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) will retire the U-125A search and rescue aircraft. In future, these duties will be conducted by UH-60J helicopters, and JMSDF will transfer UH-60Js to the JASDF.

In Japan, UAV operations have not progressed due to strict legal restrictions, and the JSDF has been reluctant to introduce uncrewed systems in the past, preventing the emergence of a leading domestic manufacturer of UAS.

Even if it does proceed with the reported plans, it will have to rely on foreign-made UAVs.

By: Koji Miyake / Tokyo
Article | Shephard Media