Japan’s space squadron to defend growing array of satellites

Japan’s space squadron to defend growing array of satellites

Felix Kim

Japan’s Space Operations Squadron will be the first line of defense in protecting the country’s growing constellation of satellites from attack or damage caused by drifting space debris.

Officially launched May 18, 2020, the new unit reflects Japan’s emphasis on space operations and its eagerness for closer collaboration with the United States in defense of space.

Describing Japan’s satellites as “our eyes and ears, or the organs of communication,” Defense Minister Taro Kono told reporters May 15 that “it is very important to protect our satellites from malicious attacks or space debris.”

He characterized the space squadron as “something like a science special investigation unit,” tasked with closely monitoring space in tandem with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. At the squadron launch ceremony, he described space as a “new security environment” and said Japan must quickly develop new capabilities. An advanced radar system to detect suspicious satellites and threatening debris will make this possible, he added.

Japan’s satellites face threats including anti-satellite (ASAT) systems that can be kinetic or nonkinetic, explained Yuka Koshino, research fellow for Japanese security and defense policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in a May 1, 2020, online essay, “Japan’s New Space Domain Mission Unit and Security in the Indo-Pacific Region.”

Kinetic systems include the People’s Republic of China’s direct-ascent ASAT interceptor, which Beijing launched atop a missile to destroy one of its weather satellites in 2007. Russia is developing a ground-launched interceptor known as Nudol, as well as an air-based one. Nonkinetic ASAT systems involve lasers and signal jamming, Koshino added.

Tokyo’s commencement of the Space Operations Squadron reflects the growing use of satellites by Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (JSDF), Koshino emphasized. These include: the Kirameki-2, an X-band military communications satellite used for command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, which was launched from Japan’s H-IIA rocket, pictured at Tanegashima Space Center in Kagoshima prefecture; and the four-satellite Quasi-Zenith Satellite System, also known as Michibiki, used by Japan’s Navy for navigation. A space-based ballistic-missile early warning system is also in development, she said.

The squadron will be based at the Fuchu Air Base outside Tokyo, reported Japan’s Kyodo News agency. Its staff of 20 personnel will expand along with its capabilities, Kono said. The squadron will become fully operational in 2023 when its ground-based, deep-space radar is deployed.

In addition to the radar, Tokyo’s 2020 defense budget calls for a space situational awareness satellite with an optical telescope to scan for space debris and ASATs. “The JSDF’s growing interest in space situational awareness will benefit not only Tokyo but also the U.S. and Japan’s other regional security partners,” Koshino concluded.

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.