The deployment of US surveillance drones in Japan marks the first time the United States has been given basing rights for the unmanned aircraft in northeast Asia. Both Japan and the United States hope the surveillance mission will augment intelligence gathering on North Korea. According to the Washington Post, the drones’ primary mission will be to fly close to North Korea where the US wants to enhance surveillance capabilities. (1)
The Air Force has Global Hawks already based at Anderson Air Force Base in Guam, an organized territory of the United States located in the western Pacific Ocean. However North Korea is at the periphery of the drones’ range and flights are often abolished due to bad weather.
About the Drones
Global Hawk drones are the Air Force’s most sophisticated surveillance vehicles which are capable of flying at altitudes of more than 60,000 feet. As well as being able to reach prolific heights, the Global Hawks are can endure flights of up to 28 hours. The RQ-4 Global Hawk, which is the biggest drone in the Air Force fleet, can survey as much as 40,000 square miles of land in one day. The advanced unmanned aircraft is equipped with state-of-the-art equipment, including satellite communications systems and infrared sensors.
Concerns have been voiced that the presence of Global Hawks in this part of Asia will irritate China and escalate tensions. In recent weeks, the Japanese Defense Ministry announced it is planning a new protocol that will shoot down foreign drones encroaching on its airspace.
One drone the Japanese protocol would have taken care is the Chinese military drone which ventured close to the hotly contested Senkaku Islands recently. The disputed maritime territory of the Senkaku Islands is presently the most intense focus of tension between Japan and China.
Sources said that the protocol will include provisions for “necessary measures” if it continued to infringe Japanese airspace and pose as a danger to the lives and property of the people of Japan.
“Drones, unlike regular airplanes, may not respond to warnings, so they represent a major risk,” said the Japanese Minister of Defense, Itsunori Onodera at a press conference. (2)
Big Brother in the Sky
It was in the immediate wake of the Japanese indicating interest to obtain drones themselves that US Secretary of State John Kerry and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel travelled to Japan to secure a deal to enable US drones to be stationed on Japanese territory. Having drones situated in a US base in Japan will enable the United States to allay Japan’s aspirations to acquire its own drones, which is, as Antiwar states “a privileged capability that gives the US an edge”. (3)
However, in Beijing, an increase of surveillance activity in its own backyard is likely to be met with disparagement. As the Washington Post reports:
“The presence of Global Hawks in East Asia is sure to irritate China, which has become increasingly vocal in pushing back against the US military presence in the region. Officials in Beijing had criticized Tokyo in recent days for reports that the Japanese military was considering acquiring its own Global Hawks, saying the introduction of the drones could escalate tensions.” (1)
Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations reiterates such concerns stating that US policy could easily intensify Sino-Japanese tensions and create dangerous escalation.
“My biggest fear is that a small mishap is going to blow up into something much bigger.” (4)
In stationing drones on Japanese territory the United States has been criticized of attempting to control China’s actions. As Antiwar states:
“Really, the US should mind its own business instead of trying to dictate China’s behavior in a desperate attempt to hold on to world hegemony.” (3)
The US and Japan, however, insist that the move is not directed at China and only at protecting the region against the threat from North Korea. Officials preserve that the presence of US drones in Japanese territory is aimed at modernizing the US-Japanese alliance. Both nations maintain this alliance is a “cornerstone of peace and stability in North Asia”. (5)
Having been referred to as “killer robots” and “Big Brother in the sky”, unmanned surveillance drones have been the source of intense protest and criticism. The latest story involving US drones is characteristically steeped in controversy but despite the condemnation it looks like drones are here to stay.