Japan is joining the international race to add artificial intelligence and drones to its defense capabilities, driven by a need to deploy its forces more effectively as population decline thins their ranks.
The coming years will see Japan acquire or develop a number of unmanned vehicles for surveillance, government plans show.
The blueprint includes three maritime surveillance drones in the procurement program for fiscal years 2019 to 2023, and an eventual 20 of the ship-transportable aerial vehicles. The process of selecting a drone will begin in fiscal 2019.
In fiscal 2021, Japan's Air Self-Defense Force will deploy the U.S.-made Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle, creating a special unit to handle the drone, which can stay airborne for long periods.
The Maritime SDF plans to develop an underwater drone for gathering information.
The U.S., China and Russia are all competing to equip their militaries with AI and drones. Some analysts see parallels to the nuclear arms race during the Cold War.
"AI has the potential to be a transformative national security technology, on a par with nuclear weapons, aircraft, computers and biotech," according to a 2017 report by Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
China is pursuing advances in AI technology as a national project. Like their American counterparts, Chinese defense planners envision it as a tool for helping commanders make battlefield decisions. China is reportedly developing a system for nuclear submarines that can assess the threat posed by enemy subs and warn commanders of danger.
The U.S. Department of Defense sees AI systems analyzing vast amounts of satellite images and other data to present commanders with a set of options for handling a situation, such as an approaching aircraft or signs of a missile launch.
AI and robots can also be used in actual combat. Russia has developed a humanoid robot called Fedor that can fire guns with both hands.
A 2017 U.S. Army report envisioned a battlefield 20 to 30 years in the future, featuring unmanned combat and supply vehicles and AI-equipped suits that support soldiers' decision-making.