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Robot Wars in the Pacific?

China Drone

Chinese drone spotted near Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands (ASDF)

By Alex Calvo

SNA (Tokyo) — The appearance on September 9 of an unmanned airplane near the Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims under the name Diaoyu, was just one of many incidents reported by the media over the last few weeks. However, it attracted the attention of observers who wondered whether this was a harbinger of things to come. On the one hand, it was just a matter of time until this kind of weapon would be deployed by the various powers in the Asia-Pacific region, where rumors about its presence already abounded. In that sense it came as no surprise. On the other hand, the strategic implications are still not clear. Some say that the future availability of unmanned airplanes may lower the threshold for the use of force, making it easier for governments to take this fateful step. Others, however, believe that incidents involving drones alone — not featuring human casualties — may actually be less likely to lead to an escalation when compared with equivalent clashes between conventional airplanes and jets.

Japan’s Defense Ministry announced that the drone had not actually entered Japanese air space, but that a non-disclosed number of jets had been scrambled in response. This was reported by different media outlets. A second official at the Defense Ministry said that the drone’s nationality was unclear but that it had come from the northwest. This official added that the aircraft had last been seen flying back in the direction from which it had come. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga called the episode “an unusual incident.”

Japan expected the first anniversary of the purchase of three of the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands to occasion some kind of Chinese action. According to an article by J. Michael Cole in The Diplomat, an undisclosed government source had pointed out that Beijing might take “outstanding” action in the area on September 11.

While Tokyo informed the media about the drone incident, the Japanese authorities did not disclose details about the aircraft employed to shadow the drone. However, writing in his “War Is Boring” blog, Robert Beckhusen said that “they were almost certainly Mitsubishi-built F-15 Eagles from the ASDF’s 204th Hikotai, based at Naha on Okinawa.” Beckhusen explained that this unit has “been at the forefront of confronting Chinese aircraft flying in Japan’s ADIZ” (Air Defense Identification Zone). The ADIZ is an area where aircraft have to identify themselves and provide details about their flight routes. The blog entry also contained a map with the drone’s flight path. According to Kyodo News, Defense Ministry sources stated that the drone had entered Tokyo’s ADIZ.

While the drone’s course implied it was Chinese, a spokesman for that country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hong Lei, initially said he was “not aware of the situation.” The Chinese Defense Ministry, on the other hand, referring to an earlier incident with manned planes, said that the flight had been “routine task,” adding that it was “not aimed at any country.” It also insisted that “China enjoys freedom of overflight in relevant waters.” This freedom, acknowledged by international law, together with “Beijing’s stated position” that “the Chinese military will organize similar activities to the Western Pacific in the future” prompted Beckhusen to write that this is now “the new normal.” The People’s Liberation Army later confirmed that the drone was Chinese, also saying that it was flying a “routine mission.”

From a picture released by Japan’s Defense Ministry, Beckhusen identified the drone as “a BZK-005 medium-altitude, long-endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or UAV.” J. Michael Cole, writing in The Diplomat, cited “image analysis and unconfirmed reports” to also identify the drone as a BZK-005. Beckusen explained that “little is known about this obscure UAV since its unveiling in 2006, except that it was designed by the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics with Harbin Aircraft Industry Group,” adding that it “is believed to boast an endurance of 40 hours with a service ceiling of 26,000 feet.”

While this was the first time that the presence of a drone near Japanese territory had been publicly acknowledged by Tokyo, incidents where an approaching plane prompts the scrambling of jets have become rather common. To be precise, in 2012 a total of 306 such incidents took place, according to Japanese official sources. That is an average of almost one per day.

In addition to cases where Chinese planes approach Japan-claimed airspace, without actually entering it, December last year was witness to the first instance in which Tokyo acknowledged an overfly of the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands by Beijing’s State Oceanic Administration.

Incidents at sea have also become routine, with, for example, four Chinese coast guard vessels sailing in the “contiguous zone” of seas claimed by Japan as its own territorial waters near the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands on the same day the drone was detected.

While none of this is new, the question now is to what extent, if any, the employment of drones may change the rules of the game. We must first take into account that it is not only China deploying drones.

Just a few days after the incident, in an interview with Foreign Policy, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera was asked, “Do you have any plans to use drones to defend or patrol remote islands like the Senkakus?” His answer was, “We are considering how to conduct warning and surveillance activities, and drones are one of the options.”

In the same interview, Onodera insisted that Washington was bound to assist Tokyo in the event of an escalation. He said, “the area in and around the Senkakus is controlled by Japan, and the lands controlled by Japan are subject to the Japan-US Security Treaty Article V,” adding, “The United States and Japan have agreed in talks that the United States is obligated to fulfill Article V in case anything happens.”

Article V of the Treaty refers to “an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan.”

Recent reports have also referred to the possibility that Japan may revise its air control regulations to allow the flying of drones, and that Tokyo may shoot down hostile drones if necessary.

Some reports have also referred to the possibility of Japan deploying drones in Guam.

Going back to our question of whether the advent of the drone will make it more or less likely for tensions to escalate, an op-ed by a group of scholars from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), published in Foreign Policy as “The Drone War Comes to Asia,” defended the former view.

The text began with the warning that “the introduction of indigenous drones into Asia’s strategic environment — now made official by China’s maiden unmanned provocation — will bring with it additional sources of instability and escalation to the fiercely contested South and East China Seas.” This was followed by a reminder of the risk from “a minor incident” spiraling out of control. The text says that drones “could be just this trigger,” in part because “they are less costly to produce and operate than their manned counterparts.” Other reasons for concern cited by the authors was that drones “encourage greater risk-taking, given that a pilot’s life is not at risk.” Additionally, they are more vulnerable to “software or communications failures” and they are flown by “inexperienced operators.”

The authors conclude that this forms the “perfect recipe for a mistake or miscalculation in an already tense strategic environment.” The article ultimately deems drones a “disruptive military technology.”

Not everybody agrees with this view of drones. Some experts point out that drones are not always more economical to build and operate as compared to manned planes, saying that “sometimes this is true, and sometimes this is not” or “people assume this to be the case, but it is frequently untrue.”

These analysts do not share the view that drones encourage greater risk-taking, are flown by inexperienced operators, or are more vulnerable to communications failures.

In support of the view that drones as not always less expensive than conventional airplanes, some analysts point to a March 2013 report by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) entitled “Assessments of Selected Weapon Programs.” It lists the following costs for drones under development in the United States:

MQ-1 US$153 million
MQ-4 US$189 million
MQ-9 US$31 million
RQ-4 US$222 million
MQ-8 US$15 million

One analyst adds, “In comparison according to the same report, an F-35 costs some 135 Million USD, a P-8A Poseidon (a P-3C Orion replacement based on a Boeing 737) around $275M. These are all expensive planes, but you can see that the UAVs are really not inexpensive, in either absolute or relative terms.”

The CNAS experts worried about the “lack of well-established norms” regulating the use of drones in conflict. They are afraid Chinese drone incursions may become “increasingly assertive and provocative” and wonder how Beijing and Tokyo will “respond in a scenario where an adversary downs a UAV.”

An alternative view, however, may also be considered; namely, that while making it easier for an incident to take place, the use of drones may lessen the impact of that same incident. First of all, the downing of a drone, be it Japanese or Chinese, would surely inflame passions at both the popular and governmental levels. However, wouldn’t the loss of a pilot have a much stronger impact? A machine is, after all, a machine. Its capture or destruction would probably be considered less significant than that of a member of the military with a family back home, and would be less likely to result in escalation and an outbreak of open warfare.

This view was defended by James R. Holmes in an article in the Naval Diplomat, where he accused the CNAS authors of the previously discussed op-ed of being “intellectual swashbucklers.” Holmes believes that the deployment of drones is “such a low-cost, low-risk endeavor” that it “can go on more or less forever, even if it commands only middling importance for policymakers.” He also notes that “the psychological barrier against bringing down an intruding UAV may be lower than that against bringing down a conventional aircraft. No enemy airmen will have perished.”

As a result, he wonders whether this would “be an automated war-by-proxy,” adding “What happens when two Skynets meet?” in a reference to the popular Terminator movies.

However, Holmes’ piece also warns about the possibility that Beijing may use drones in a way similar to how it has been using fishing vessels, following the logic of “small-stick diplomacy.” The drone, just like the trawler, “appears inoffensive, yet it’s there.” Both pose a difficult choice: “Refrain from acting, and you’ve let an opponent establish a presence – a stepping stone to control – on disputed ground. Act, and you justify countermeasures from a stronger adversary that can portray itself as the aggrieved party.” In Holmes’ view, this is “a tough problem.”

An additional scenario, outlined in Taiwan’s China Times, would be the deployment of Chinese drones in support of “activists.” Citing Duowei News, an outlet run by overseas Chinese, the article explains, “Insiders claim that Chinese coast guard vessels along with unmanned aerial vehicles and submarines will be mobilized to provide cover to radical activists who attempt to land on the island chain in protest at Japanese control.”

Thus, tensions in the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands may mean the evolution of the drone from an asymmetric to a symmetric weapon. In this scenario, unmanned airplanes would not be used against a less technologically advanced foe. Rather, two conventional actors or coalitions would be resorting to similar technologies, with neither in full command of the skies.

An alternative scenario would be the employment of drones in support of asymmetric assets, probably in the form of civilian vessels manned by fishermen or activists. This would mean taking the combined arms approach one step further, by combining not only different military weapons and systems but also integrating them with ‘civilian’ agents.

From the first, symmetric scenario at least three further questions emerge.

First, could the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands become the first robotic battlefield in military history?

Second — and linked to this — what would the impact of this development be on the increasingly muddled waters between war and peace? Since the Second World War, nations usually do not actually declare war, while waging it all the same, at least in a limited form. May we now be entering an era in which war will gradually become the province of machines, with people directing them from positions removed from the battlefield?

Third, could this become Japan’s response to the vexed question of whether and how to confront Chinese maritime territorial claims, while not endangering economic relations with China and avoiding a general conflagration?

It may be tempting to answer in the affirmative. However, given the strong feelings fueling all sides in these conflicts, and the continued perception by China that the country is encircled by hostile powers bent, at the very least, on “restricting” its reemergence, the losing side may well be tempted to revert to more classical forms of warfare.

To conclude, the presence of a drone in Japan’s ADIZ is no real surprise, but rather a long-expected development. Furthermore, it takes place in the context of increased reliance on unmanned systems by a number of countries in the region, not only China.

Concerning its ultimate impact, different views exist, ranging from those who fear that it may make it more likely for troubling incidents to take place to those who see a lesser potential for the outbreak of open conflict. There are also those who warn that drones may be used to contest territorial dominance and dare the adversary to initiate hostilities.

Alex Calvo is a Professor of International Relations and International Law, European University in Barcelona.