TOKYO, Oct. 4 (AP) - (Kyodo)?Japan's Defense Ministry is considering acquiring three Global Hawk unmanned high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft from the United States to deal with China's military rise and North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs, sources in the ministry and the Self-Defense Forces said Sunday.
The ministry hopes to write the plan into its new Mid-Term Defense Program for fiscal 2011-2015, which will be based on a new National Defense Program Outline the government is poised to adopt at the end of this year.
The recent rise in tensions between Japan and China triggered by the collisions last month between a Chinese trawler and Japan Coast Guard patrol boats near disputed territories in the East China Sea is expected to help push the acquisition plan, the sources said.
The current midterm defense buildup plan says that from the standpoint of strengthening Japan's intelligence-gathering capabilities, the ministry will take "necessary measures after considering" acquiring unmanned reconnaissance aircraft.
Although the ministry has been conducting basic research on unmanned surveillance aircraft since fiscal 2003 with the possibility of producing it domestically, it has now tilted toward first importing the Global Hawk given the aircraft's advantages in performance and costs, the sources said.
The U.S. government has also sounded out the Japanese government over acquisition possibilities through multiple channels, they added.
The Global Hawk would cost about $50 million (roughly 4.15 billion yen), including equipment, bringing the sum for three aircraft to more than 12 billion yen. The ministry estimates it would need tens of billions of yen additionally to build ground facilities with command functions, according to the sources.
Equipped with sophisticated cameras and highly sensitive communications-receiving abilities, the Global Hawk can fly at 60,000 feet (roughly 18,000 meters) in altitude -- about twice as high as commercial passenger aircraft can -- for just more than 30 hours on autopilot.
Data gathered on board the reconnaissance plane can be almost simultaneously sent to command facilities on the ground. Its ability to fly at high altitudes also enables the aircraft to survey countries such as North Korea and China much more deeply into their territories.
Together with its ability to fly longer than manned counterparts, the Global Hawk is likely to boost Japan's ability to gather intelligence and monitor its neighbors' activities.
The ministry hopes to use the aircraft, which does not have attack capability, to defend remote Japanese islands and counter suspicious ships in and near Japanese waters, while at the same time looking at the possibility of operating them as part of the country's shield against ballistic missiles, according to the sources.
The ministry has yet to decide which section within its organization should be in charge of unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, partly because officials are concerned that money will be cut from existing programs if the new program comes under their authority, they said.
If the ministry has trouble sorting out which section will be in charge, there is a possibility that plans about unmanned reconnaissance aircraft would remain unclear in the new midterm defense buildup plan, the sources said.