Japan has begun to develop unmanned, remote-controlled fighter aircraft capable of breakneck manoeuvres that will be deployed as early as 2035, at it braces itself for further advancements in China’s military technologies and the rise of drone warfare.

Tokyo currently stands outmanned and outgunned by its larger neighbour. China possesses more than 1,000 fourth-generation fighter jets that can reach supersonic speeds, about three times as many as Japan, according to the defence ministry. It has also begun deploying fifth-generation stealth fighters.

Facing a significant disadvantage in numbers, Japan, like many other countries, is accelerating defence-related research to curb China’s military power.

Japan’s defence ministry plans to introduce fighter drones in three stages: first, those that are remote-controlled, then “teaming” operations where one manned plane would control several drones, and ultimately for use in completely unmanned and autonomous squadrons. Autonomous weapons require advanced machine-learning capabilities, and international rules have yet to catch up to the technology. The ministry plans to focus on teaming operations first for its 2035 goal, set to coincide with the deployment of Japan's next-generation manned fighters.

Japanese companies have already been tasked with researching the necessary technologies. Subaru will be in charge of developing remote and flight control capabilities, while Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Mitsubishi Electric will work on an instantaneous information-sharing system between multiple aircraft. The ministry’s acquisition, technology and logistics agency is also planning out artificial intelligence technology for the drones.

Japanese companies could partner with US and British companies as well.

The ministry will invest ¥2.5bn ($24m) in remote and flight control technology, and another ¥200m in AI technology. It aims to conduct a flight test with a small prototype around fiscal year 2024, when the research phase is expected to wrap up, and start designing the final product as early as fiscal year 2025. The final fighter drones could be equipped with detection and missile capabilities.

Japan hopes to bolster its defences using relatively little manpower by allowing one pilot to control multiple drones, and having the jets share information with each other. The drones could also gather data in dangerous areas without risking the lives of Japanese defence personnel.

Because fighter drones do not need a cockpit, they can be built smaller, simpler and more cheaply than a manned jet. But they need sophisticated AI that can instantaneously process large amounts of data to respond effectively to an enemy strike.

Countries around the world are working to develop fighter drones. China’s public and private sectors are working together on the technology, and the country is already using unmanned aircraft in the field. In 2017, a Chinese drone flew into Japanese airspace near the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which China claims and calls the Diaoyu.

China is also believed to be working on an AI-powered combat support system. Further advancements there could force Japan to ramp up its defence capabilities even further.

Meanwhile, the US also conducted its first test flight in 2019. Its drones are believed to be able to carry at least two small bombs, and could also be equipped for anti-surface and air combat. The US Air Force plans to test an autonomous aircraft against a manned jet in July.

The UK plans to conduct a test flight as early as 2022, and envisions linking fighter drones to next-generation manned fighters that are in development. Australia is considering equipping its fighter drones with integrated sensors to bolster surveillance operations.

A version of this article was first published by Nikkei Asia on January 1 2021. ©2021 Nikkei Inc. All rights reserved