Japan to introduce AI-equipped drones to work with future fighter jet

The Defense Ministry plans to introduce autonomous drones equipped with artificial intelligence to operate in linkage with the next-generation fighter jet that will succeed the Air Self-Defense Force’s current F-2 fighter jet.

The ministry has included research and development expenses in its budgetary request for the next fiscal year, with the aim of deploying the drones around 2035, when the next-generation fighter jet is planned to be introduced.

The drones will be flown in airspace away from the manned fighter jets, detecting enemy aircraft and missiles using on-board sensors. As it will be the drones flying in dangerous airspace, it enhances safety for the crews on board the fighter jets. Deterrence is also improved as the drones allow for quicker sighting of enemy stealth fighters that are hard to detect on radar. And as they are smaller than manned aircraft, there is the benefit of reduced production costs.

The drones will be controlled by the fighter crews, but AI is regarded as indispensable, as it allows multiple drones to fly stably and autonomously in remote areas where they cannot be seen in order to detect threats while assessing weather, terrain and other factors. As such, the ministry’s first order of business is to hasten the development of AI technology for practical use. The plans call for the drones to be loaded onto the next-generation fighters, then detach and begin operating as needed.

The United States, China and Israel are the leading countries in the race to develop military drones. There remain concerns from an ethical viewpoint of the danger of leaving decisions to attack up to AI.

At this time, the ministry is aiming to use the drones for patrol missions. Providing the drones with the capability to intercept missiles will be examined in the future, but the current policy holds that even if that happens, it would still be with the involvement of fighter crews.

The next-generation fighter jet will be jointly developed by eight Japanese companies led by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., with U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. providing technical support on stealth performance. The ministry is considering also having the domestic firms develop the drones in order to enhance the linkage with the next-generation fighter jet.