Drones: Scary, but Good for Peace

Japan’s new anti-drone law is a harbinger of what’s to come

Drones: Scary, but Good for Peace Drones: Scary, but Good for Peace

Uncategorized October 21, 2013 0

chinese drone near senkaky. japanese ministry of defense Drones: Scary, but Good for Peace Japan’s new anti-drone law is a harbinger of what’s to... Drones: Scary, but Good for Peace
chinese drone near senkaky. japanese ministry of defense

Drones: Scary, but Good for Peace

Japan’s new anti-drone law is a harbinger of what’s to come

Last month, a small observation drone, piloted from China, flew over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. The flight prompted outcries from Tokyo that China would be using drones to solidify its claim over the islands, which Japan sharply contests.

In response, Japan has passed a law authorizing its military to shoot down Chinese drones that venture too close to Japanese territory. Is this going to lead to war?

The politics of the island dispute are almost immaterial — it’s one of a number of territorial and other maritime disputes that are increasingly defining politics in China’s near-abroad. What’s so interesting is how drones are being used to monitor the disputed territories and — more worryingly — how other powers are reacting to their use.

Earlier this year, Japan began to use U.S. surveillance drones, the large, high-altitude RQ-4 Global Hawks, to monitor the disputed islands. Global Hawks are expensive, highly advanced aircraft. According to the Defense Technical Information Center, a U.S. government office providing detailed datasets of U.S. military equipment, they are more expensive (pdf) to acquire and to operate than every commonly used aircraft in the U.S. inventory except the F-22.

In other words, Japan is sparing few expenses in keeping an eye on the islands. Nevertheless, the brief foray by that Chinese drone into Japanese airspace raised many eyebrows. In a way, it can be seen as part of China’s general effort the last few years of probing Japan’s air response times with a mixture of small reconnaissance and larger bomber aircraft.

But it also highlights one way drones might allow an escalation of tensions over an incident without dramatically raising the stakes.

The Japanese anti-drone law just received a nod of approval from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The law authorizes Japan’s Self Defense Forces to shoot down foreign-operated drones if they do not respond to warnings given by the Japanese military. Here’s where it gets interesting.

The drone China used last month near Senkaku is probably the BZK-005, a medium-sized unarmed reconnaissance drone. While the design of the plane itself is fairly advanced — it’s made with high-technology composite materials and can fly for up to forty hours — China is still around two decades behind the United States in terms of operating its budding drone fleet. It’s not clear how the aircraft could comply with a Japanese warning short from broadcasting the demand directly to the Chinese government.

That creates a rather perverse situation, where China could be flying a drone, Japan tries to warn it, and because the drone itself cannot respond to that warning without a specific means of relaying back to its controllers, it gets shot out of the sky. It’s instant-escalation.

Of course, neither Japan nor China want to actually start shooting at each other. But China’s flawed strategic logic in claiming the islands leaves open the worrying prospect that Japan might shoot down a Chinese military aircraft which, even if it’s piloted remotely, could trigger further escalation on China’s behalf.

Disputing the Senkaku Islands has been diplomatically successful for China, but the constant escalation surely has a breaking point. The big question now is: when will tensions hit the breaking point? And how can the two powers prevent a more widespread conflict?

Soviet Tu-95 Bear escorted by U.S. F-15 Eagle. U.S. Air Force photo

Looking more broadly, it’s clear that remotely piloted aircraft like the BZK-005, the Global Hawk, and the dozens of other models being developed by most advanced militaries will come to dominate military overflights — the ancient sabre-rattling that seems to accompany any two advanced militaries operating nearby to each other.

Though relatively expensive to develop and operate, drones allow for a much longer flight time over sensitive areas, and the lack of a pilot inside the aircraft makes it expendable should something bad happen and it gets shot down or crashes.

So should Japan start swatting Chinese drones out of the sky, it will matter — tensions will almost certainly get worse. But it also won’t involve the lives of pilots being put at risk, which lowers the chance of another Hainan Island incident (when a U.S. EP-3 spy plane collided with a Chinese F-8 interceptor).

And maybe, that’s something to look forward to: conflict with the stakes lowered so much they don’t compel both sides to outright war.

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