The US Air Force deployed an RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude surveillance drone at Yokota Air Base on Monday night, starting a five-month operation in Tokyo, Japan Times reports. The drone, the first of five to arrive in Japan, is tasked to survey ballistic missiles and nuclear facilities in North Korea, and is part of the 69th Reconnaissance Group Detachment 1. Global Hawks do not have offensive capabilities.
Its mission is to provide near real-time aerial imagery reconnaissance support to U.S. and partner nations, according to the base’s website. Four more Global Hawks are slated to be deployed to the base, and a total of 110 staff members, including mechanics, are set to be stationed there in a related move.
According to Japan's Defense Ministry, the drone is capable of capturing aerial images and electronic data from an altitude of around 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) or more, higher than the altitude at which commercial aircraft typically fly. The drone will be controlled by remote from Yokota during takeoff and landing, and then from the U.S. mainland once it reaches a sufficient altitude.
In the past, Global Hawks have been deployed at the US Misawa Air Base in the northern prefecture of Aomori. But work to revamp the runway at Misawa led to the switch to Yokota, where the Command of US Forces in Japan is located. To boost its own defense capabilities, Japan's Defense Ministry decided to introduce three of them for the Self-Defense Forces, and will start deploying one at Misawa at the end of fiscal 2019.
"This rotational deployment of the Global Hawk is temporary but necessary to provide a base from which the platform can be reliably operated during the summer," the US Pacific Command announced last month, adding that the US "continues to deploy its most advanced capabilities to Japan, including the Global Hawk, in keeping with our commitment to further contribute to the security of Japan and to the stability of the region."
Elsewhere, the Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopter carrier Izumo joined a U.S. Navy vessel at sea on Monday in the first protection mission enabled by security legislation that took effect last year and has expanded the role of the Self-Defense Forces, Japan Times reported. The Japan-U.S. cooperation comes amid rising tensions over North Korea, which continues to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions. .
The cooperation between the two militaries comes days after Japanese fighter jets joined American aircraft for joint drills in waters off Okinawa, amid heightened tensions with North Korea.
On Monday night, President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also held an informal telephone call on Monday. The conversation was held on Monday morning Japan time and lasted about 30 minutes, according to the sources. No announcement of the talks was made by the Japanese government, a rarity for such events. The call followed three formal telephone meetings last month, all of which focused on the increasing threat posed by North Korea.
Japan's Foreign Ministry reiterated caution to journalists, urging them to refrain from visiting North Korea, as part of Tokyo’s unilateral sanctions against Pyongyang that have been in place since February 2016. Amid rising tensions, many reporters traveled to the reclusive state to cover a military parade on April 15.