Japan to Relocate SeaGuardian Drone Operations with Eye on Enhancing Maritime Surveillance

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A SeaGuardian drone is seen in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, in November 2022.

The government is weighing the relocation of the operational base for the Japan Coast Guard’s SeaGuardian unmanned aerial vehicle from Aomori Prefecture to Kitakyushu Airport in Fukuoka Prefecture by the end of fiscal 2024, according to sources close to the JCG.

An increase in the number of operational units also is being mulled, potentially swelling from three to five by the end of fiscal 2025.

The envisaged moves aim to enhance Japan’s surveillance capabilities, especially around the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, where Chinese vessels have repeatedly intruded into Japanese territorial waters.

Kitakyushu Airport, located on an artificial island at the western end of the Seto Inland Sea, is a maritime airport with 24-hour takeoff and landing capabilities that houses the JCG’s Kitakyushu Air Station in Kanda, Fukuoka Prefecture.

During the G7 Hiroshima Summit in May, a temporary base for refueling and maintaining SeaGuardian units was set up at the station, which was involved in security operations.

China’s assertive maritime activities continue to expand, including the installation of marine survey buoys inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off the Senkaku Islands in July.

“As Kitakyushu is close to both the Senkaku Islands and the Korean Peninsula, having a base there will help enhance maritime surveillance capabilities,” a government official said.

The relocation is scheduled to be announced by the end of this year, according to the sources.

In October last year, the JCG began operating a SeaGuardian drone from the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Hachinohe Air Base in Aomori Prefecture. In May, three units began operating out of the base. However, under an inter-agency agreement with the Ministry of Defense and the Self-Defense Forces, the JCG’s right to use the base’s land and facilities will expire at the end of fiscal year 2024, necessitating a relocation.

The government reportedly selected Kitakyushu Air Station from a number of possible deployment sites. The JCG has budgeted approximately ¥1.6 billion for the relocation in next year’s budget estimate, even though the destination was initially “undecided,” according to the sources.

SeaGuardian drones are 11.7 meters long and have a wingspan of 24 meters. They can fly for over 24 hours and have advanced surveillance capabilities, including night-vision infrared cameras. They are used in search and rescue operations when maritime accidents occur and to keep a lookout for suspicious vessels.

The U.S. Coast Guard also uses the drones, which are manufactured by U.S. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.