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Japan's Plans for MQ-9B Sea Guardian Trials

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Japan is gearing up for trials of the MQ-9B Sea Guardian unmanned air vehicle (UAV) over the East China Sea from July to September this year, according to Japan Defense Minister Minoru Kihara's announcement at a recent press conference. Kihara disclosed that the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) has been conducting trials at JMSDF Hachinohe airbase since May of the previous year, and the UAV will now operate from JMSDF Kanoya Air Base during the specified period.

Source: The MQ-9B SkyGuardian with the JSM missiles - General Atomics

The Defense Minister highlighted that the trials aim to assess the potential of unmanned systems in replacing some of the missions currently carried out by manned aircraft, such as surveillance and warning. The trials will involve simulated alert surveillance over the East China Sea three times to evaluate the Sea Guardian's capabilities.

It's noteworthy that JMSDF Kanoya Air Base, located on the main island of Kyushu, had previously hosted UAVs, with the U.S. Air Force operating MQ-9 Reapers from November 2022 to November 2023 before relocating them to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa.

The strategic importance of the Southwest islands, including the disputed Senkaku Islands, has prompted Japan to increase its military presence and activities in the region. The upcoming Iron Fist exercise, scheduled from Feb. 24 to Mar. 17, will involve the participation of the U.S. Marine Corps and the Japan Ground Self Defense Force (JGSDF). The exercise locations include Camp Ainoura in Sasebo, Camp Hansen in Okinawa, Okinoerabu Island, and Camp Takayubara in Kyushu.

Source: An MQ-9B SkyGuardian flies across Atlantic for RAF100 event - General Atomics

The U.S. element of the exercise will be led by the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) along with the America Amphibious Ready Group (ARG). JGSDF Western Army will command Japanese forces, involving the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (ARDB), 1st Helicopter Brigade, and supporting units. The exercise will focus on amphibious operations, and due to the grounding of Marine Corps MV-22Bs Ospreys, CH-53E Super Stallions are expected to conduct air assault and transportation missions.

Currently operating in the Philippine Sea around Japan, the America ARG and 31st MEU are engaged in various training exercises. Recently, the Marine Corps conducted Exercise Rapid Tanto on the island of Ie Shima, implementing expeditionary advanced base (EAB) concepts outlined in the Marine Corps’ modernization. The exercise demonstrated the integration of forces capable of supporting joint maritime campaigns in the increasingly contested Indo-Pacific region.

Source: The MQ-9B SkyGuardian coverage - General Atomics

The SeaGuardian is equipped with four wing stations capable of carrying up to four sonobuoy dispensing pods, allowing it to dispense a maximum of 80 'G' size or 40 'A' size sonobuoys. With an impressive mission radius of 1200 nautical miles and extended on-station time, the SeaGuardian is well-suited for submarine hunting, posing a formidable challenge to human-crewed Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) aircraft. Additionally, it can serve as an ideal companion to crewed ASW aircraft for extended missions.

The SeaGuardian demonstrates versatility in various maritime operations, including:

  • Search and Rescue
  • Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief at High Seas
  • Maritime Law Enforcement
  • Anti-Surface Warfare
  • Anti-Submarine Warfare
  • Airborne Mine Counter Measures
  • Long-Range Strategic ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance)
  • Over-the-Horizon Targeting

The SeaGuardian's diverse capabilities make it a valuable asset across a spectrum of maritime missions, offering a reliable and efficient solution for tasks ranging from search and rescue to strategic intelligence gathering.


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