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Japan to Replace Attack Helicopters With Drones

Under its latest National Security Strategy, Japan announced that it will replace its fleet of manned attack and armed scout helicopters with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).

Specifically, Japan will ostensibly replace its 48 Bell AH-1 Cobras and 12 Boeing/Fuji Heavy Industries AH-64D Apache gunships with three new unmanned platforms.

These new platforms would comprise of ‘attack-utility,’ ‘surveillance,’ and ‘miniature attack’ types. Japan did not provide any additional details about these new platforms.

However, Japan’s developmental work up to this point as well as overseas trends could allude to several potential options ranging from loitering munitions to fixed-wing UAVs to rotary-wing drones.

In any case, shifting to only drones is a significant move. While many other major militaries are aiming to supplement their existing and new manned attack helicopters with drones, none have signalled an intent to shift all the way towards unmanned systems like Japan.

Japan’s New Modernization Plan

Interestingly, Japan is not clawing back its manned attack helicopter force to cut back. In fact, Japan’s new National Security Strategy signals an intend to build up the country’s overall defence capabilities.

Notably, Japan is aiming to build its counterstrike capabilities, especially in response to the advancements of Chinese and North Korean missile technologies. Japan’s defence spending is set to around $315 billion U.S. by 2027. Japan will invest in acquiring stand-off range weapons (SOW), like cruise missiles, from both domestic and overseas sources. It will also design and develop a next-generation fighter (to complement its F-35 Lightning II fleet), among other significant moves.

Thus, Japan’s manned attack helicopters do not seem like victims to funding constraints. To the contrary, Japan could have likely supplanted its aging aircraft with fresh AH-64Es (which, interestingly, can provide a measure of teaming or interoperability between manned and unmanned assets).

Is Supplanting Attack Helicopters With Drones a Good Idea?

Japan likely has a specific vision in mind in terms of both where and how it would use close air support (CAS) and anti-armour/infantry assets. Not only that, but Japan’s threat assessment of the probable anti-air capabilities of China and North Korea is worth exploring or investigating.

Lessons from Ukraine

Reviewing Ukraine can help with setting context. Basically, Russia’s attack helicopter fleet sustained heavy losses in the war. In October 2022, the U.K’s Ministry of Defence had estimated that Russia lost 23 Ka-52 heavy attack helicopters, i.e., over 25% of its fleet.

The culprit? Ukrainian MANPADS (man-portable air defence systems). But there is a deeper story at play – when deployed correctly, ground-based air defence systems (GBADS) can be lethal. Thus, from a threat assessment standpoint, Japan may have heavily emphasized Chinese and North Korean GBADS stacks.

While Ukraine is inducting an increasingly sophisticated inventory of Western surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, China manufactures many comparable systems of its own. In fact, China is capable of producing a wide diversity of SAMs, be it quick-reaction, point-defence missile systems to long-range, theater-range solutions providing over 300 km in range. And China will deploy these systems across many platforms and in every area of strategic and tactical interest to the People’s Liberation Army.

Thus, from Japan’s standpoint, the potential operating environment of its CAS assets could be incredibly high-risk in terms of attrition. If Japan is anticipating an exceedingly high attrition rate, then cutting ahead to a pure drone-based fleet would make sense.

Returning to Ukraine, drones have worked for both Kyiv and Moscow. Yes, both sides have suffered many losses in terms of their respective drone fleets. However, losing drones is generally not as costly as losing a sophisticated manned system, like the Apache. Moreover, loitering munitions open the avenue of using drones in aggressive ways, not only in terms of the one-way mission focus, but also the flexibility of varying sizes, weights, deployment platforms and much more.

Now, it will be worth uncovering where Japan is envisioning its operating environment. If it is anticipating a markedly high-risk environment, could it be looking at more offensive operations, like interdicting China in third-party territory? Indeed, one of Japan’s envisioned unmanned platforms – i.e., the attack/utility-type – can point towards building a capability for logistically connecting forward deployments.

This may sound like a stretch. However, Japan’s National Security Strategy clearly calls out the need for a much-improved counterstrike capability. Thus, offensive deployment capabilities could reinforce Japan’s sense of deterrence by establishing that it too can project power and operate in hostile, enemy areas.

What Could Japan’s New Drones Look Like?

Though Japan did not disclose the specifications or even, for that matter, the design approach of its new drones, its prior work and trends around the world could offer some ideas.

One can imagine seeing the Kawasaki OH-1 inspire at least one of the drone platforms. While a lightweight platform, an unmanned variant could unlock additional range and payload capabilities. In turn, Japan can use a comparably-sized airframe in the attack-utility role.

Interestingly, Turkey is (or at least was) experimenting with a similar approach through its T-629 studies. In 2021, Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) revealed an unmanned T-629 concept.

Of course, a system of this nature would not be low cost. However, if Japan leverages as much its existing and off-the-shelf technologies as possible, it could produce a system with a reasonable cost relative to its role. A relatively low-cost rotary design that can a modern attack helicopter (albeit a lighter system such as the T-129 rather than a heavyweight design like the AH-64) could be the goal.

Alternatively, Japan could also look at smaller rotary drone designs. In this scenario, it would heavily focus on controlling cost and try exacting the benefit of expendability rather than range and payload.

However, it is important to remember that cost may not be an issue for Japan. Thus, it is plausible that it could take on a more ambitious program analogous to the T-629, i.e., a relatively large unmanned rotary-wing drone. In other words, even if unmanned, its new ‘attack helicopters’ could still leverage comparable range and payload to competing 4-7-ton designs, like the Chinese Z-10 and Z-19E.

Will Other Countries Follow Japan’s Lead?

Currently, most major militaries investing in attack helicopters seem to be procuring both manned and unmanned solutions. Basically, the model of ‘manned-unmanned teaming’ seems to be catching on with most fiscally-able militaries. In other words, most future deployments could see a mix of manned rotary assets and drones with varying degrees of interoperability.

Pakistan

Pakistan, for example, is heavily investing in drones across each of its service arms. However, the Pakistan Army (PA) is still working on acquiring new manned attack helicopters. Granted, the PA’s plans had been derailed due to various issues (starting with a chill in Islamabad’s ties with Washington to pressing fiscal problems). But for now, it seems the PA’s vision is to induct both types of platforms.

However, in Pakistan’s case, it is unclear how well it will develop a manned-unmanned teaming capability. This will probably not emerge indigenously; rather, Pakistan is likely to acquire it off-the-shelf from its key suppliers, i.e., China and Turkey. For the time being, the two assets would likely operate separately.

That said, it may not be long before the PA starts deploying drones in the CAS role, especially for potential counterinsurgency (COIN) and counter-terrorism (CT) operations.

But on the other end of the spectrum, it will be interesting to see the growth in GBADS, especially in the low-altitude or short-range air defence (SHORAD) layer. Based on Ukraine, it seems that a contemporary SHORAD capability can exert considerable pressure on low-flying air threats.

Returning to Pakistan, which faces the threat of Indian integrated battle groups equipped with CAS assets like attack helicopters, GBADS could also be of greater interest moving forward. Accelerated investments in this area (across both Pakistan and India) could potentially alter both countries’ rotary-wing programs as both sides begin facing stiffer anti-air threats.

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