YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Japan would kindly appreciate it if you don’t call the unmanned underwater vehicle they’re doing fuel cell research for with the United States a “submarine.” Japanese defense ministry officials told Stars and Stripes on Monday that they’ve budgeted $26 million over the next five years to develop a high-powered fuel cell for the vehicles, known in military circles as UUVs.
However, Japan sometimes goes out of its way not to sound too militaristic, in line with its pacifist constitution.
For example, it relies on its 250,000-strong Self-Defense Forces, instead of a military. Its flat-topped Izumo-class ships aren’t carriers, they’re helicopter destroyers.
On Monday, a defense spokesman did his best to avoid the connotation of offensive capability that the word “submarine” apparently carries. “[The] UUV is not equipped with a weapon, therefore it is not the same as an unmanned submarine,” said the spokesman, who remained anonymous, as is customary in Japan. “The current research is for the fuel cell for the UUV. There is no specific plan for joint research on the UUV itself.”
Japan’s maritime force does include several manned, torpedo-equipped, diesel-electric submarines considered to be among the best of their type. The not-a-submarine that they’re doing fuel cell research for is a lot smaller. UUVs are the underwater version of UAVs, which are better known as unmanned planes, or drones.
The drone concept planned for the fuel cell is designed to be about 30 feet long and operate on its own for about a month. Most of the United States’ unclassified underwater drone programs are also designed more for surveillance than attack.
For example, the military has budgeted $29 million in 2015 funds — double last year’s funding — to build a prototype of Hydra, an underwater drone dubbed “the mothership” for its planned ability to drop smaller drones from its belly. Hydra’s enclosures “are deployed by various means, depending on the need for speed and stealth and remain deployed until awakened for employment,” according to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s current budget proposal.
Hydra would “create a disruptive capability” in coastal waters, the budget proposal stated. The U.S. Navy has increasingly sent its coastal assets to the Asia-Pacific region in recent years. Trillions of dollars and trade pass through the often-shallow, reef-dotted South China Sea annually.
The seas surrounding China have also been the location of several low-level skirmishes over territorial rights between China and its neighbors, including Japan.