Japan Ruling Parties OK to Down Unmanned Aircraft

Courtesy of Sendai Space Museum
An object is seen in the sky over Satsuma-Sendai, Kagoshima Prefecture, on Nov. 20, 2019.

The Self-Defense Forces will be able to use weaponry to down balloons and drones violating Japanese airspace if such objects pose a safety threat to civilian aircraft, according to new criteria approved by the ruling parties.

The Defense Ministry presented its proposal to the Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner Komeito on Thursday, with the aim of strengthening the SDF’s ability to respond to such situations. The proposal was approved by the parties the same day.

At least three objects thought to be Chinese unmanned reconnaissance balloons have intruded into Japanese airspace since 2019.

Article 84 of the Self-Defense Forces Law stipulates that if foreign aircraft enter Japanese airspace, Air Self-Defense Force fighter jets can take necessary measures to force the intruders to land or vacate the nation’s skies.

The government’s previous stance was that weapons could be used only as a right of self-defense or an act of necessity. However, this was assumed to pertain to manned aircraft, such as fighter jets. The new criteria cover unmanned aircraft such as balloons and drones.

The SDF will be allowed to use weapons to protect citizens and property on the ground and ensure the safety of civilian aircraft, even in cases that do not fall under the category of self-defense, among others. The ministry also took into account that human life would not be endangered if unmanned aircraft were to be shot down.

The government decided to clarify the criteria for the use of weapons against unmanned aircraft due to the difficulties associated with forcing such aircraft to leave Japanese airspace, compared with manned aircraft. Concerns about unmanned objects intersecting with civilian aircraft flight paths also were taken into consideration.

The SDF will be tasked with improving its technical capabilities for dealing with weaponry. The U.S. military shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon on Feb. 4 at an altitude of around 60,000 feet (18,000 meters), which is higher than the typical fighter-jet service ceiling of 50,000 feet.

At a meeting of the LDP’s subcommittee on the matter on Thursday, a member said, “Specialized training is necessary.”