Two years ago Japan paid American Northrop Grumman nearly $500 million for a trio of Global Hawk spy drones, with deliveries wrapping up in 2022. Now Tokyo reportedly is reconsidering the purchase. The review comes a year after Iranian forces shot down a U.S. Navy Global Hawk that was flying in international air space near Iran.

While it can fly as high as 65,000 feet, beyond the reach of many air-defense systems, the Global Hawk is subsonic and lacks stealth features, making it vulnerable to the most powerful surface-to-air missiles. Iranian forces claimed they used a version of the Buk M1 road-mobile SAM to shoot down the Navy Global Hawk.

The shoot-down of the high-flying, non-stealthy drone spooked American officials.

“We need to balance our [surveillance] portfolio to meet the challenges of a highly-contested environment,” said Lt. Gen. VeraLinn Jamieson, then the U.S. Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Officials in Tokyo reportedly came to the same conclusion.

“We can’t put such expensive planes at risk of being shot down,” a source told the wire service Jiji Press.

There’s another factor. The U.S. Air Force as part of its 2021 budget proposal asked Congress to let it retire all 20 of its older camera-equipped Block 30 Global Hawks, leaving just 10 newer, radar-fitted Block 40s in service. The Navy has not altered its own plan to acquire 68 Global Hawks with cameras and electronic sniffing gear.

Lawmakers have put the retirements on hold for now. But the Japanese defense ministry is worried that, if Congress approves the cuts, the cost of supporting its own three Block 30s will rise. The only other operator of older Global Hawks, besides the U.S. Air Force, is the South Korean air force.

“Fewer aircraft obviously means higher maintenance costs,” a source told Jiji Press.

With thousands of islands and vast territorial waters—not to mention a belligerent neighbor in the form of China—Japan has enormous appetite for surveillance. Tokyo’s surveillance portfolio includes sea- and land-based radars, manned patrol planes and reconnaissance pods on supersonic fighters.

But arguably the Japanese military’s most important surveillance systems are in orbit. Tokyo since 2003 has launched 18 so-called “information-gathering satellites.” A launch accident destroyed two of the sats. Others have aged out.

The government’s goal is for 10 surveillance spacecraft to be in operation at any given time, in theory providing around-the-clock, global coverage. Satellites could feed targeting data to forces firing long-range missiles.

Some of the satellites carry cameras. Others pack radars for surveillance at night and in bad weather. While a satellite isn’t invulnerable to attack—China does operate space weaponry, after all—it should be harder to knock out than a drone is.

Photo: Maj. Marc Nichols, 452nd Flight Test Squadron assistant director of operations, conducts a walk-through inspection of an RQ-4 Global Hawk remotely-piloted aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base, California – U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO BY GIANCARLO CASEM

Source: Forbes

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