The Kyodo News reported that the Japanese defense ministry was considering the purchase of three Global Hawk drone aircraft into its Midterm Defense Program for fiscal 2011 through 2015.
Each of the unmanned high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft are estimated at $50 million Kyodo reported, citing unnamed defense ministry sources. The same sources said they expected the cost to surge by several million dollars for the creation of necessary ground facilities.
"Japan hopes to use the camera-equipped unarmed aircraft to boost the officially pacifist nation's intelligence-gathering capabilities, watch remote islands and monitor suspicious ships in and near its waters," the news agency report said.
Japan is at odds with China over contesting claims to territorial waters close to a group of islands in the East China Sea. As a result, diplomatic relations between the two countries have been strained and Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan is to address his country's case against China at an upcoming meeting of Asians and European leaders.
Meantime, Japan and the United States are planning to conduct a military exercise later this year, in a war-game scenario involving the protection of Japan's remoter islands.
Mounted with sophisticated communication capabilities, the Global Hawk can cruise at an altitude of 60,000 feet for more than 30 hours. That's twice the capability afforded by a commercial passenger aircraft.
The data it gathers can be sent almost instantly to command facilities on the ground, analysts say. Plus, its ability to fly at such high altitude allows the drone to spy deeper into the territories of China and North Korea.
Should Japan proceed with the purchase, analysts say it would stoke tensions even further with China, when relations were vexed last month with the arrest of a Chinese trawler captain in the disputed waters.
The Japan Times reported that defense ministry officials were considering using the spy craft as part of a defense shield.
The U.S. government has been sounding out Japan about acquisition possibilities through multiple channels.
"The defense ministry has yet to decide which section should be put in charge of unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, partly because officials are concerned that money will be cut from existing programs if the new program comes under their authority," The Japan Times reported, citing anonymous defense sources.