Drones to monitor N. Korean, Chinese activities

TOKYO - Full-scale large military drone operations will start shortly in Japan and its nearby airspace to monitor Chinese military activities and North Korea's nuclear and missile development.

The US Air Force plans to deploy two Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to its Misawa Air Base in Aomori prefecture this month, and Japan's Air Self-Defence Force (ASDF) plans to procure three UAVs of the same type in fiscal 2015 and later.

But experts say regulations on their flights must be put in place because Japan's aviation laws lack clear stipulations on large drones.

A Global Hawk is a 40m-wide, 14.5m-long unmanned plane made by Northrop Grumman, a US aerospace and defence company. The drone has been deployed by the United States military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of the units to be deployed to Misawa Air Base will be operated from the ground in Misawa until it reaches a certain height after takeoff. The drone will then be controlled via satellite by Beale Air Force Base staff in California, according to sources.

The unarmed UAV will fly at an altitude of 18,000m for up to 30 hours, and will survey military facilities on the ground and vessels in open waters with sophisticated sensors and radar.

Ground control will resume at the Misawa base just before the drone lands after completing its reconnaissance flight, sources said.

The ASDF is planning to buy three Global Hawks and deploy them at its own Misawa Air Base located next to the US base. Deployment of the drones is expected to enhance the capabilities of both countries to gather intelligence in areas around Japan.

"The Global Hawk provided us with a wealth of data, including surveillance of crippled reactors at Tokyo Electric Power's Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant," a Self-Defence Force official said. "The device will be effective in surveying the activities of North Korea and the Chinese military."

Japan now uses an intelligence-gathering satellite to monitor military facilities in North Korea where nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles are developed, but the time frame to monitor a site is limited because the satellite is in orbit. A Global Hawk with its high-performance sensors capable of extended flight time will be able to augment data gathering.

The units are also expected to be useful in watching Chinese naval ship movements in the South China Sea, the sources added.

Some residents around Misawa Air Base have expressed concern about the drones. "I'm worried because the planes are unmanned," a resident said.