Japan launches space defence force against emergent threat

Japan has launched a space unit to monitor dangerous space debris and suspicious satellites, as it ramps up security in what experts describe as a new battleground.

The formation of the 20-person unit, which falls under the Air Self-Defence Force, comes days after Japan's security ally, the US, unveiled the flag of its own dedicated space warfare service branch.

The twin moves are aimed at allowing the two nations to work closer together against hybrid warfare, amid concerns of sophisticated Chinese and Russian technology that can disrupt, disable or even destroy satellites.

Defence Minister Taro Kono said at the launch ceremony on Monday that Japan had to urgently raise its situational awareness in the space domain, and the unit, called the Space Operations Squadron, will work with both the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the new US Space Force.

Kobe University security expert Tosh Minohara said the Space Operations Squadron had been planned for 2022 but its launch was propelled forward, given imminent security challenges, with "outright Chinese aggressiveness" pushing the two allies closer.

The unit will have 100 people when fully operational in 2023.

As of March last year, the United States had 125 satellites, China had 103, Russia 96, and India 12. These exceed Japan's 11 units, with Tokyo long relying on US satellites for the collection of ground image data and information on ballistic missile launches from North Korea.

But military satellites aside, damage to civilian satellites could also impede meteorological observations and air traffic control.

Japan's Defence Ministry's pacifist focus on space debris is evident in its pledges to secure the "stable use of space by providing advice to operators based on orbit analysis".

Space debris can travel at speeds of seven to eight kilometres per second, posing a clear threat to the eyes in the skies that can be active up to 36,000km above Earth.

Japan also aims to launch its own space surveillance satellite by 2026.

Meanwhile, experts say the degree of provocation of actions, such as knocking satellites out of orbit, remains a grey area. Dr Masashi Nishihara, president of Japan's Research Institute for Peace and Security, told The Straits Times it is easy to argue that the action was "accidental or not provocative" as there are no human casualties.

"This is all Star Wars stuff," Dr Minohara quipped. "Japan (and the US) must develop procedures on space warfare conduct as battles will eventually be fought in space."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 20, 2020, with the headline Japan launches space defence force against emergent threat. Subscribe