Japan's Defense Agency plans to develop small, unmanned spy planes similar to those used by the US in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, a major newspaper reported yesterday.
The agency expects to spend about ¥9 billion (US$78 million) over five years to develop the unmanned aircraft, including ¥300 million (US$2.6 million) in fiscal year 2004, which starts in April, the Asahi Shimbun said.
The planes would be equipped with high-resolution cameras to conduct surveillance of suspicious ships off Japan's coast, and may even be armed. The agency hopes to deploy the planes as early as 2009, the Asahi said.
Japan has already tested a prototype of a pilotless drone with swept-back wings resembling a fighter jet, a project it began researching in the mid-1990s.
American unmanned aircraft, such as the Predator in Afghanistan and the Global Hawk used in Iraq, are equipped with surveillance cameras and missiles to conduct spy operations and destroy military targets.
It wasn't clear how Japan's unmanned aircraft would be used. Critics say the government's backing of a more active Japanese military signals a shift toward remilitarization and violates the country's post-World War II pacifist constitution.
Japan's constitution limits its military -- called the Japan Self Defense Forces -- to non-combat roles following decades of imperialistic aggression leading to World War II.
The reported plans for unmanned planes come a month after the agency issued an annual report outlining the need to bolster the country's defenses against possible nuclear and terror attacks. The agency recommended speeding research on missile defense, citing North Korea's nuclear and missile programs as one of Japan's biggest security concerns.
Agency officials, who point to the US military's lead in high-tech advancements, are also considering a plan to link Japanese fighter jets to a US-developed satellite-guided bombing system beginning next year, the Asahi said.