Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) have their first ever space unit, the Space Operations Squadron. Its core mission will be to track space garbage and other countries’ satellites to prevent damage to Japan’s own orbital assets.
Satellites are a foundational part of everyday life here on Earth, from GPS to weather observation to wireless communications during disasters. If these were to be damaged, the impact would be felt far and wide.
The Space Operations Squadron will conduct its observation mission in conjunction with U.S. forces and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. It is expected to add more personnel and, in the future, will apparently pursue research into electromagnetic weapons to disrupt the communications of other nations’ satellites as a defensive measure.
If the unit’s brief is indeed expanded, it runs the risk of violating Japan’s “peaceful use” space policy. The Diet voted to adopt the peaceful use of space principle in 1969, and has focused its extraterrestrial efforts on science and technological research and development ever since. However, the 2008 Aerospace Basic Act shifted the interpretation of this stance. No longer did it mean that Japan would not use space for military purposes, but simply that it would not use space for “aggression.”
The United States, China, and Russia are locked in competition for space hegemony, and tensions are rising. Other countries, too, use satellites for intelligence gathering and monitoring missile launches, and the machines unarguably play a major role in modern military operations.
In 2007, China successfully shot down one of its own satellites with a missile. The country is also reportedly developing “killer satellites” that can disable or destroy those of its enemies, among other military space technologies. The U.S. has designated space a new arena of military conflict, and last year created the Space Force, a new service branch to go along with the Army, Navy and Air Force.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said that Japan “proceeding to create an aerospace defense force is no pipe dream,” hinting at a much-expanded space operations unit in the future.
However, discussion on whether all this would accord with Japan’s pacifist Constitution and foundational principle of pure self-defense has been severely lacking. Furthermore, nothing has been done yet to define what Japan could or could not do if one of its own satellites was attacked.
Defense Minister Taro Kono has signaled that he would view an attack on a U.S. or other allied satellite as possibly coming under Japan’s right to exercise collective self-defense. Discussion on the legality of this stance, and on proper checks, is needed immediately.
The continuing lack of an international rules framework for space issues is also a problem. Japan should be backing a push to set these rules based on the principle of peaceful use, and put the brakes on the militarization of space.