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Rise of the machines: Japan plans to replace some manned air assets with UAVs

The Japan Ground Self-Defense Force's fleet of Bell AH-1S Huey Cobras is scheduled to be replaced by unmanned combat aerial vehicles by 2027. This photo of JGSDF AH-1Ss and a Hughes OH-6 Cayuse light observation helicopter was taken in 2014 in the United States. (US Army/PFC Brianne Patterson)

The Ministry of Defense (MoD) in Tokyo has said it is planning to invest JPY1 trillion (USD7.1 billion) over the next five years to replace some manned units in the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) with unmanned systems. The funding will support the “early deployment of multiple unmanned assets”, a Japan MoD spokesperson told Janes .

Japan's push to acquire unmanned systems is based on the country's new Defense Buildup Program (DBP) document. The policy, which was released in December 2022, calls for the military to reduce its personnel strength. The authorised strength of the JSDF is 247,153 people. However, the MoD's efforts to achieve this number of personnel are increasingly challenged by Japan's shrinking and ageing population. In its Defense of Japan 2022 White Paper, the MoD said the number of people eligible for JSDF recruitment from 2020 to 2030 is forecast to decline by 12%, from 25.51 million in 2020 to 22.37 million in 2030.

To align with this outlook, Japan seeks to cut about 2,000 personnel from JSDF service, according to the Japanese-language DBP. This includes about 500 personnel through the retirement of some aircraft such as the BAE Systems U-125A and the Gates Learjet U-36A. The DBP added that amid this decline in human capital the JSDF is required to “ensure the effectiveness” of its capabilities. In the 2022 White Paper the MoD also linked unmanned systems with its ‘Make the Most of Limited Human Resources' initiative.

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