Agreement will allow U.S. to fly long-range surveillance drones from base in Japan


From left, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, shake hands before the Japan-U.S. 2+2 meeting in Tokyo on Thursday. (Koji Sasahara/AP)

The U.S. military will deploy long-range Global Hawk surveillance drones from Japan next year, U.S. and Japanese officials announced Thursday, marking the first time the Pentagon has been able to secure basing rights for the advanced unmanned aircraft in Northeast Asia.

The Air Force will begin flying “two or three” Global Hawks from an undetermined base in Japan next spring, a senior U.S. administration official told reporters during a visit here by Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

The drones’ primary mission will be to fly near North Korea, an area where U.S. officials hope they will greatly enhance current spying capabilities. The Air Force already has Global Hawks stationed at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, the U.S. territory in the Pacific, but North Korea is at the edge of their range and their flights often are curtailed because of bad weather.

The Air Force also has Global Hawks stationed in the Persian Gulf.

The unarmed drones carry multiple spy sensors and are the most advanced surveillance aircraft in the Air Force’s fleet. They fly at altitudes above 60,000 feet, placing them out of range of most air defenses. Without pilots in the cockpit, they can fly for more than 28 hours at a time, giving them an unmatched range of nearly 9,000 nautical miles.

The presence of Global Hawks in East Asia is sure to irritate China, which has increasingly pushed back against the U.S. military presence in the region. Officials in Beijing had criticized Tokyo in recent days over reports that the Japanese military was considering acquiring its own Global Hawks, saying the move could escalate tensions.

China is also engaged in a bitter territorial dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, an uninhabited group of outcroppings in the East China Sea that Japan nationalized last year, sparking confrontations between the two countries’ ships deployed in the area.

Besides flying missions over North Korea, the Global Hawks would presumably give the United States and Japan better information about the movements of Chinese ships in the vicinity of the Senkaku, which China calls the Diaoyu Islands. The same goes for Chinese ships elsewhere in the region, such as the South China Sea, where China is mired in territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and other countries.

The U.S. military has flown drones over Japan in the past on a temporary basis, including after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, but next year will mark the first time it will base them in that country, according to U.S. officials. They said the drones would be deployed on a rotational basis, meaning they could be moved elsewhere, such as Guam, for months at a time.

In addition to the Global Hawks, P-8 maritime surveillance patrol aircraft will also start to be deployed in Japan in December, U.S. and Japanese officials announced. It would be the first time the aircraft will be stationed outside the United States.

“The cutting-edge capabilities of the P-8, which I saw demonstrated last summer, will greatly enhance” the allies’ ability to conduct surveillance, particularly over the open seas, Hagel said at a joint news conference with Kerry, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.

The Obama administration has made a point of stressing its ties to the Pacific region and showing up for Asian events as part of its “pivot to Asia” policy. The joint U.S. Cabinet visit went ahead despite the government shutdown that led President Obama to curtail his own planned trip to Asia next week. Kerry will fill in for Obama for visits to Malaysia and the Philippines.

The security measures announced Thursday should give both Japan and the United States greater protection and better intelligence about the activities of North Korea and China, one an adversary and the other a wary partner and sometime competitor.

“There are different threats and different kinds of threats,” Kerry said at the start of the joint session Thursday. “So it is important for us to recognize that this bilateral alliance remains a vital element of our respective national security strategies.”

In addition to the drones and the P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, Japan and the United States announced that a new antiballistic radar station would be built in Kyogamisaki, in southern Japan, and become operational sometime in the next year.

The powerful X-band radar is intended to shore up defenses against a possible ballistic missile attack by North Korea. Japan and the United States had announced an agreement last year to build the radar but had not said where it would be located or when it would be up and running.

“It’s important for ballistic-missile defense for both nations, and so I think that’s why it’s kind of on a fast timeline,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Salvatore Angelella, the commander of U.S. forces in Japan.

Although the Pentagon says the radar is aimed at North Korea, it ranks high on China’s list of grievances about the U.S. military’s enhanced presence in the region.

China’s territorial disputes with neighbors in the East and South China seas have threatened to draw in the United States because of its treaty obligations to Japan and South Korea, forcing U.S. officials to walk a fine line in some of the cases.

Japan’s nationalization of the Senkaku Islands provoked protests across China, and trade declined between the two mercantile nations. Last month, Japanese officials said they had not ruled out stationing officials on the rocky islands, and China warned in response that Japan “must be prepared to bear the consequences of this provocation.”

Last year’s election of nationalist Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe deepened the dispute. Since then, Abe’s government has increased defense spending for the first time in a decade and is contemplating changing the Japanese constitution to loosen restrictions on its military.

The United States considers the Senkaku Islands to be under Japanese administration and subject to the U.S. treaty obligations to defend Japan, but it does not take a position on the eventual ownership of the islands.

Japan would like a firmer statement of U.S. support in the Senkaku dispute, but a joint U.S.-Japanese statement issued Thursday does not address the issue. Hagel mentioned the islands during a news conference but repeated standard U.S. policy to “oppose any unilateral or coercive action that seeks to undermine Japan’s administrative control.”

Japan also announced Thursday that it would pay up to $3.1 billion to help relocate 9,000 U.S. Marines from bases on the southern island of Okinawa, where many Japanese are opposed to their presence. Under an agreement reached last year, most of the Marines will transfer to Guam over the next decade, while others will move to Hawaii. The realignment is estimated to cost $8.6 billion overall.

The U.S. military has about 50,000 troops stationed across Japan, the largest overseas deployment except for Afghanistan.

Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security. He has reported for The Washington Post since 1998.
Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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