The government Tuesday officially approved a project to assemble four reconnaissance satellites by fiscal 2002.

The satellites will be designed to collect information for national defense and on natural disasters, and increase the nation’s crisis-management capability, a government statement released after a Cabinet meeting said.

In the fiscal 1999 budget draft released Monday, the Finance Ministry appropriated 11.3 billion yen for research and development of the satellites.

While the government calls the orbiters “information collection satellites,” some critics claim they are purely military in nature, noting their maximum resolution will be good enough to recognize objects as small as 1 sq. meter on the Earth’s surface.

Since 1969, Japan has barred launching any object into space for other than peaceful purposes. To dodge criticism and negative reactions from other parts of Asia, the government will involve various ministries in the project, not just the Defense Agency.

Of the 11.3 billion yen budgeted, the government will allocate 6.8 billion yen to the Science and Technology Agency, 2.2 billion yen to the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, 1.4 billion yen to the Cabinet Secretariat and 0.9 billion yen to the Post and Telecommunications Ministry.

Sources said the four satellites — two with optical sensors and two with synthetic aperture radar — will be developed jointly by major Japanese electronics companies.

Even though the Defense Agency will not be involved in the project’s research and development, agency chief Hosei Norota said he welcomes the government’s decision.

Norota told the Cabinet meeting Tuesday the agency is willing to join hands in the development of the satellite project — especially on data-analyzing systems — by offering the Self-Defense Forces’ current capabilities in analyzing visual image data.

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