Japan is set to launch its third spy satellite on Sunday from Tanegashima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture.

The satellite will likely focus mainly on North Korea, particularly its ballistic missile sites. Tokyo considers the missiles one of the main threats to the country.

But since Japan’s spy satellites are inferior to those of the U.S. military, and even some newer commercial satellites, government officials say Japan must keep developing its own surveillance technology to ensure it has an independent source of intelligence.

“We have been far behind the U.S. To put it bluntly, the gap is like the one between a kindergartner and a college student,” said Yoshio Omori, former head of the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office, an intelligence-gathering body that reports directly to the prime minister.

“Without independent information-gathering capability, Japan will be a blind follower (of other countries),” Omori warned.

Japan plans to launch another all-weather radar satellite this winter. Together with the two spy satellites already in operation plus the one going up Sunday, the government will reportedly be able to take photos of anywhere in the world, at least once a day.

The optical reconnaissance satellite being launched Sunday can take pictures of objects on the ground to a resolution of 1 meter, according to the government.

But some government sources indicated the resolution of Japanese satellites is not always sharp because changing the position of a camera to follow an object can cause the image to blur.

Even with its two spy satellites currently in orbit, Japan is still heavily dependent on images from the U.S.

During the runup to North Korea’s ballistic missile tests in July, top Defense Agency officials were forced to examine photos from U.S. military satellites to determine the condition of the launch pad in the northeastern North Korea, according to senior Defense Agency officials.

Shigeru Ishiba, former Defense Agency chief and a key defense expert in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, declined to give details but admitted that the capabilities of Japanese spy satellites are “not satisfactory.”

“(The Japanese satellites) are still in their early stage (of development). Still, it is better than having nothing,” Ishiba said.

The Defense Agency regularly purchases photos taken by U.S. commercial satellite operators. The latest commercial models offer resolutions as high as 60 cm — images much finer than those available from Japanese spy satellites.

“Examining photos from commercial satellites, you can tell the types of vehicles on the ground, such as cars, buses or tanks,” a senior Defense Agency official said.

“But looking at photos from U.S. military satellites, you can even tell what make a car is, say, Ford or GM,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The U.S., which initially opposed Japan’s efforts to develop its own spy satellites, has promised to provide high-resolution photos for Japan whenever it needs them, according to Defense Agency officials.

But Ishiba argues that Japan needs its own spy satellites because Washington might doctor the photos before turning them over.

“Trust between Japan and the U.S. is very firm. But you can’t say the possibility is zero that the U.S. might manipulate the information, because the national interests of the two countries may differ,” Ishiba said. “The U.S. of course controls (when and where) photos from U.S. commercial satellites are taken,” he added.

Japan, which has limited its military capability to that needed for self-defense in the postwar period, has long maintained a ban on the military use of space through a Diet resolution. Nevertheless, it has launched reconnaissance satellites, justifying their use by claiming they can also be used for nonmilitary purposes.

Ishiba said an LDP committee on space development will soon recommend that the long-standing civilian-only space policy be revised by the end of the year to allow “nonaggressive” military activities in space.

Based on the panel’s recommendations, either the government or LDP lawmakers will submit a bill revising the policy, he said.

Moves to strengthen Japan’s defense intelligence capabilities are due, in large part, to previous North Korean missile tests.

Japan began developing and deploying spy satellites after Pyongyang fired ballistic missiles into the sea near Japan in 1993 and 1998, officials said.

The North reportedly fired a Rodong ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan about 350 km off the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture in 1993.

According to Omori, Japan was unaware of the missile test until Washington told Tokyo about it, and had no way of confirming the launch independently. The Rodong, considered the main threat to Japan, can reach most of the country.

“We knew nothing about the Rodong, and still we don’t know. Even now, I don’t think anyone in a Japanese (intelligence) organization has confirmed the firing of the Rodong,” Omori said.

“It was a humiliating experience for Japan as a country,” said Omori, explaining why he began pushing for the development of spy satellites.

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