In mid-November, Moscow flexed its military muscle by test-launching a missile that struck a Russian satellite, to show that it can fight wars in space. The blast created a large debris field in low-Earth orbit that is expected to pose a threat to satellites and space activities for years to come.
Russia is not the only country to have conducted such an anti-satellite missile test. The U.S., China and India have carried out similar tests in the past, and some countries are developing other means to disrupt an adversary’s satellite operations, including by jamming their signals or using “killer satellites,” the latter of which approach a target satellite and utilize a robotic arm or similar method to capture it and disable its functions.
As the new space race escalates, protecting space assets has become vital to a nation’s security and economy. For many advanced countries, satellites have become indispensable public infrastructure, as they increasingly rely on these systems for telecommunications, television and radio broadcasting, weather forecasts and navigation. And modern militaries wouldn’t be able to operate without the data and information for communication, surveillance, navigation and unit coordination that satellites provide.
Japan’s Defense Ministry is bolstering the country’s defense capabilities in what are often called “new warfare domains” — space, cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum. The challenge for Japan is that it must protect its space assets with a purely defensive posture, as constitutional restrictions prevent the possession of offensive capabilities.
One of the latest moves highlighting Japan’s efforts was Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi’s announcement in mid-November that the country’s Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) will field another Space Operations Unit later this year.
The Second Space Operations Squadron, to be based at Hofu Kita Air Base in Yamaguchi Prefecture, will focus mainly on monitoring threats posed to Japanese satellites by electromagnetic interference. Typically, this involves jamming, though there are other threats such as ground-based lasers capable of blinding satellites equipped with sensitive cameras.
Once fully trained, the new unit will operate a locally developed radar system, Kishi said during a visit to the airbase, adding that Japan also plans to start operating a space situational awareness (SSA) system from 2023 and deploy a space surveillance satellite by fiscal 2026, which starts in April of that year.
“We will continue to actively strengthen our capabilities in the space domain to complete the defense of Japan,” noted the minister, while emphasizing the importance of the country securing a “stable use of outer space.”
Tokyo first revealed its intention to create an additional space squadron in the Defense Ministry budget request for the next fiscal year released in August, which asked for ¥84 billion to fund space-related defense activities and programs. This also includes ¥18.9 billion for the ASDF to acquire the country’s first laser-based ranging equipment for space surveillance, which would be used to determine the distance of space debris from the ground.
The ASDF’s First Space Operations Squadron, which is based at Fuchu Air Base in Tokyo, was formally established in May 2020. The unit operates a space surveillance system that includes a network of ground radars designed to simultaneously track the positions of satellites and space debris, with the aim of avoiding collisions between the two.
The system, which is expected to be fully operational by the 2023 fiscal year, starting that April, has also been designed to monitor satellites of countries that may seek to disrupt Japanese as well as American operations.
To coordinate the tasks of the two “Space Operations Squadrons” as well as other space-related activities, Tokyo will create a new ASDF unit called the Space Operations Group before the end of March this year.
The Self-Defense Forces intend to build a space surveillance radar at the former site of the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Sanyo receiving station in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Other capabilities that Tokyo is trying to acquire are space surveillance satellites and space-based optical telescopes by March 2027, as well as the ability to disrupt the command-and-control capabilities of opponents through the electromagnetic spectrum.
The ASDF is cooperating closely with the U.S. military to train its staff on how to operate in the space domain. In fact, the First Space Operations Squadron has already conducted space surveillance-related training with U.S. forces, for instance during the bilateral training exercise Keen Sword 21 in the fall of 2020. Furthermore, ASDF personnel have been taking part in multilateral space surveillance exercises.
The service has also assigned a liaison officer to U.S. Space Command for greater cooperation and coordination between Washington and Tokyo in this field. The move builds upon other arrangements between the two governments, including those related to the sharing of space surveillance and missile warning data.
Resilience and redundancy
For Japan, providing additional layers of backup in anticipation of attacks and/or disruptions is key to ensuring the stability of its space infrastructure. To achieve this, Tokyo is using a greater number of smaller satellites and diversifying methods of communication.
According to Japan’s Defense White Paper, the country is enhancing such capabilities “by acquiring satellite images from small satellite constellations … (as well as) defense communications satellites.”
The Defense Ministry is aiming to ensure redundancy by receiving signals from multiple positioning satellites, including commercial satellites and Japan’s Quasi Zenith Satellite System, which was developed to improve the accuracy and availability of the GPS and Galileo navigation satellites over Japan.
The ministry also said that the SDF will continue to use images from the Advanced Land Observing Satellite-2 operated by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and will include an infrared camera on the ALOS-3 satellite to conduct research.
In terms of communications, Japan is already operating the geostationary (positioned over the same location at all times) communication satellites Kirameki-1 and Kirameki-2 and is aiming for a system of three such satellites by launching Kirameki-3 in fiscal 2022 to further improve communications resilience. At the same time, the Defense Ministry is thought to be conducting research on the next generation of such satellites.
Regarding positioning, the SDF have been mounting GPS-receiving terminals on a large number of assets, using them as important means to support troop movement, including for highly accurate navigation and the improvement of missile guidance, according to the Defense Ministry.
When, not if
The SDF’s space capabilities have come a long way since 2008, when Tokyo enacted the country’s Basic Space Law, allowing for the first time the use of space for dedicated defense purposes, including operating military satellites to monitor missile launches as well as for reconnaissance and communication purposes.
Although space has never been forcibly contested to date, the likelihood that this will happen in the not-too-distant future is increasing, especially as it becomes a critical medium for the national security of countries with technologically advanced armed forces.
Nations such as China and Russia, both of which are embroiled in territorial disputes with Japan, are rapidly advancing their space warfare capabilities to deny a potential adversary any military advantages resulting from the use of space.
According to U.S. Space Command Deputy Commander Lieutenant General John Shaw, the space battlefield is no longer science fiction, and anti-satellite weapons are going to be a reality in future armed conflicts. Based on this assessment, it could be argued that the question is no longer if, but rather when space will become contested in an armed conflict, and whether Japan will be ready to protect its strategic interests.
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