Catching Up: Japan Hastens Acquisition of Unmanned Ground Vehicles for its Military

Defence Industry

Christchurch: Japan’s recent contracts for unmanned ground vehicles awarded to international vendors are a sign of how the government plans to invest more heavily in robots to support its ground troops.

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Japan is trailing behind neighbours like China and South Korea in the application of military unmanned systems. According to Japan’s military-acquisition agency ATLA, demographic trends are spurring a desire to catch up.

The country’s population is aging and shrinking, limiting the pool of candidates for military service. “It is important to promote efforts for automation, labour saving and optimization through utilizing unmanned assets, including UGVs,” the agency said in a statement.

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On April 8, Rheinmetall announced a multimillion-dollar deal for three Mission Master SP 8×8 unmanned ground vehicles, or UGVs. Then, on April 16, Estonia-based and United Arab Emirates-owned company Milrem stated it had been awarded a contract for three THeMIS tracked UGVs for trials by the Japan Ground Self-Defence Force (JGSDF).

The trio of Mission Masters will be delivered next January and the THeMIS vehicles in the current financial year. The JGSDF also plans to obtain three Vision 60 quadrupeds from US-based Ghost Robotics in FY2024, which began April 1.

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An ATLA spokesperson said that approximately six billion yen – some US$38 million – was allocated in the FY2023 budget for small UGVs.

Through the course of FY2025, ATLA will “sequentially verify the performance of these UGVs and how we will operate them,” the spokesperson said. They will be used for garrison security, information gathering and combat support, for example.

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ATLA stated, “The Defence Buildup Program calls for the effective combination of UGVs and unmanned aerial vehicles to improve the efficiency of security and protection systems of garrisons, bases and other critical facilities.”

Asked why UGVs are being acquired from foreign companies rather than Japanese vendors, ATLA’s spokesperson listed factors such as performance requirements, costs and maintenance. “There are no polices to limit only Japanese-made UGVs or only foreign-made UGVs for future acquisition at this time.”

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The agency added that “unmanned assets are often relatively affordable compared to manned equipment, and have the great advantage of being able to minimise human loss and operate continuously for a long period of time.”

Milrem said Japan’s THeMIS robots will be configured for supply transportation and intelligence gathering. The THeMIS has been adopted by 16 countries to date, including by Ukraine in its defence against Russia.

“The goal of the Ground Self-Defence Force is to fundamentally strengthen its defence capabilities with unmanned assets in order to gain asymmetric superiority while limiting human losses, a task to which UGVs are uniquely qualified,” Kuldar Väärsi, CEO of Milrem Robotics, said.

Rheinmetall stated its electric-powered Mission Masters will each be equipped with different payload modules, including cargo, surveillance and a remote-controlled weapon station. Its contract includes a long-term support and training program plus spare parts, in conjunction with Japanese partner Marubeni Aerospace.

The Japan Air Self-Defence Force is already trialing three Vision 60 legged robots at Hyakuri Air Base, north-east of Tokyo. The robots were used to support rescue efforts after January’s Noto earthquake.