The Defense Ministry is considering installing sensors on satellites of private companies in the United States and other countries to monitor the activity of foreign military, several government sources have said.
By using private satellites, the ministry hopes to reduce costs and strengthen monitoring networks. The move is aimed at strengthening Japan’s ability to collect information on military activities in North Korea and China.
In its fiscal 2020 budgetary request, the Defense Ministry has included ¥100 million for expenses to evaluate the idea. The ministry will study trends in the space industry advanced by companies in such countries as the United States and draw up ways for the Self-Defense Forces to utilize private satellites.
The U.S. government has also launched a scheme to utilize private satellites, the sources said.
The Japanese government currently operates a total of seven information-gathering satellites — also known as reconnaissance satellites — which comprise two optical satellites and five radar satellites. It plans to possess 10 such satellites eventually.
In recent years, China and Russia have developed satellites capable of attacking other satellites as well as electromagnetic weapons that interfere with satellite functions. There is also a growing threat that satellites could be damaged by the increasing amounts of space debris.
The United States and China currently operate about 50 reconnaissance satellites. A senior Japanese Defense Ministry official said, “We want to increase the number of satellites as much as possible so that we can use them stably.”
However, since it costs between ¥40 billion and ¥50 billion to launch one satellite, it is difficult to increase the number of satellites without support.
The ministry thinks that piggybacking on private satellites would help increase the number of satellites it has access to at a low cost.
The government will also start developing small backup satellites in the event that intelligence-gathering satellites lose their functions. It plans to launch a demonstration satellite as early as next fiscal year.
The small satellites will weigh no more than 100 kilograms and will be capable of capturing images that have a ground resolution of at least 1 meter, good enough to detect the movements of people or vehicles. The demonstration satellite will be operated by the Cabinet Satellite Intelligence Center for about two years to examine its performance and durability.
Of the seven satellites the government currently has in operation, two radar satellites have already passed their planned five-year lifespan by more than one year. The planned operational periods of another radar satellite and one optical satellite are expected to have ended by the end of March. They are still in operation despite fears of breakdowns.