By Year-End, Japan To Make Decisions On Global Hawk Order

Japan’s decision whether to order Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawk surveillance aircraft that could later be upgraded to reinforce the country’s ballistic missile defenses, which has been brewing for years, is likely to be decided by year-end.

According to program officials, the decision is now due to appear in the National Defense Program Guideline, which will set out future military policy when it is published this year. The joint staff office of the Japanese military is studying the possible order, reflecting its status as a national program. The officials say Japan is considering a force of four, enough to provide a continuous patrol, even with one in deep maintenance. The Kyodo wire service, quoting sources in the ministry and defense forces, says three could be bought. Even if only two were available, they could maintain a continuous patrol close to Japan.

The navy is arguing that Japan is not ready to deploy such unmanned aircraft and should therefore defer the decision. Doing so would open the possibility of buying the navy’s preferred version of the Global Hawk, the MQ-4C, which is still under development for the US Navy as a maritime patroller.

The air force is pushing for an early move in which Japan would order the RQ-4B Block 30, the current US Air Force production version. Japanese sensors are not ready and would, in any case, need time for integration. So if the aircraft were ordered under the imminent policy statement, they would be delivered to the current US production standard, perhaps with sensitive equipment or software left out.

Japanese industry could then take as much time as needed to develop sensors that would later be retrofitted to the RQ-4s, possibly replacing some original equipment. That approach is considered essential, since Japanese sensor development could be quite protracted.

In the missile defense role Japanese RQ-4s would operate purely as sensor aircraft, cueing the sensors of weapons-firing ships or aircraft, such as the General Atomics MQ-9 Predator.

No variant of the Q-4 is likely to be armed at any time during the type’s production life, says one industry official. The governments of countries that are friendly to the U.S. are willing to let the aircraft fly over their territory in part because it cannot be carrying weapons. If there were an armed version, it might be indistinguishable from the ground from those that could not carry weapons.

The defense ministry’s budget request for the fiscal year beginning April 2011 includes funding for studies and research on unmanned aircraft. The money would pay for investigations into the foreign operation, sustainment and maintenance of high-altitude long-endurance drones.

Japan has been working on its own surveillance drone in that category since 2001 as part of a program called the Future Unmanned Aircraft Systems Study. That aircraft would fly higher than a Global Hawk, but the government’s serious evaluation of the need for an RQ-4 order indicates that the indigenous aircraft is progressing slowly, if at all. The ministry is now inclined toward “first importing the Global Hawk, given the aircraft’s advantages in performance and costs,” says Kyodo.

But the U.S. Defense Department has argued against Japan building its own high-altitude surveillance drone.

Whichever way Japan moves, Global Hawks are already becoming a permanent feature of the Western Pacific. The first of a detachment of three RQ-4Bs to be deployed on Guam has arrived at the island’s Andersen AFB. More than four may eventually operate there, says Lt. Gen. Herbert Carlisle, commander of the 13th Air Force.

The two services can certainly share maintenance and logistics at Guam, says Carlisle, and the arrival of more aircraft should boost flexibility.


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