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U.S., Japan seek to prepare against new types of missiles with satellite constellation

By Toyohiro Ichioka, staff writer


Japan’s Ministry of Defense is seriously considering participating in the U.S. “satellite constellation” missile defense initiative in hopes of enhancing Japan’s defense against new types of missiles developed by North Korea and other nations. The constellation of satellites would be used to detect enemy cruise missiles, which will be intercepted with medium-range surface-to-air guided missiles (MRSAM). In the future, the satellite constellation may be used with laser weapons carried on unmanned aerial vehicles in operations to intercept incoming missiles.


On Aug. 27, the U.S. Space Force’s Chief of Space Operations John Raymond called on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and reiterated in the strongest terms the importance of Japan’s cooperation, saying, “We see Japan as the most important partner, and we would like to continue to deepen solid and tangible cooperation between our two countries.” The U.S. Space Force was newly launched in December 2019. Raymond’s visit to Japan amid the pandemic signified the importance of Japan’s cooperation.


New types of missiles developed by China, Russia, and North Korea have played a large role in the change of course in U.S. defense strategy last summer. By March this year, North Korea had launched several short-range ballistic missiles that were likely modeled after Russia’s “Iskander.” Those missiles are designed to first descend, fly low, then rapidly gain altitude before impact, rendering conventional missile defense systems increasingly obsolete.


Faced with this threat, the U.S. took steps toward a new initiative, involving the launch of a number of small, less costly satellites tasked with detecting and tracking incoming enemy missiles. In Nov. 2017, then-Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command John Hyten said that the U.S. would no longer develop satellites that are big, heavy, slow, and destined to become easy targets of enemy attack.


When Defense Minister Taro Kono met with Raymond on Aug. 27, he conveyed Japan’s interest in the satellite constellation initiative. However, some in the Japanese government are cautious about joining the initiative, as the U.S. has not disclosed details of the plan. They are also concerned about the accuracy and performance of small satellites and maintenance costs that rise in proportion to the number of satellites.


During the Cold War, the U.S. tried to realize the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which deploys laser weapons to intercept enemy missiles. The SDI failed to come to fruition, however, despite the large amount of money spent on the project. Kunio Oda, former lieutenant general of the Air Self-Defense Force, said: “Although connecting many small satellites to see the complete picture is a desirable goal for the future, there is a concern that it may remain a far-fetched dream like the SDI. As Japan doesn’t have a large defense budget, the government should evaluate its feasibility before taking any action.”  


China and Russia to develop new assortment of weapons


By Yoshiaki Nishimi, Beijing chief correspondent, and Yuichi Onoda, Moscow correspondent


China and Russia are steadily developing and deploying next-generation weapons claimed to be capable of penetrating the U.S. missile defense system. The two countries are now gradually acquiring capabilities to attack U.S. military satellites that function as “eyes” in the U.S.’s defensive and offensive strategies.


China is likely to have deployed a new strategic missile, the Dongfeng-17 (DF-17), which can weave through the U.S. missile defense networks. Unlike conventional ballistic missiles with a predictable trajectory, the DF-17 is designed to glide with an intricate trajectory at a hypersonic speed of more than five times the speed of sound, making it difficult to intercept.


Knowing that the U.S. military closely observes China’s missile development efforts, Beijing decided to show off 16 DF-17 missiles at a military parade held in October last year. This was an indication that DF-17 has already been deployed. The DF-17 enables China to target a U.S. Navy carrier strike group, Taiwan, or Japan. In the future, they might be armed with nuclear warheads.


Furthermore, China is developing an Anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) that enables it to penetrate missile defenses by destroying U.S. military satellites. In 2007, the Chinese military conducted a test to prove the ASAT’s capability by destroying one of its own weather satellite, scattering in space a large number of satellite fragments. China conducted a second ASAT test in 2014.


Last December, Russia deployed an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle for the first time. The vehicle, called “Avangard,” is said to be capable of neutralizing missile defenses as it flies in an irregular path at a speed 20 times faster than the speed of sound. Other weapons currently under development in Russia include a new salmat ICBM and the Burevesnik nuclear-powered cruise missile. These new weapons have a very long flight range, enabling them to maneuver around the missile defense network.


In April, the U.S. Space Force confirmed that Russia conducted an ASAT missile test. In July, a projectile was launched from a Russian satellite in a geocentric orbit toward another satellite, suggesting that Russians are moving to develop “killer satellites” to attack satellites in the same orbit.


Satellite Constellation

A new missile defense initiative announced last summer by the U.S. National Defense Space Architecture. The initiative involves over 1,000 satellites launched in lower-than-usual orbits, including 200 to detect and track enemy missiles using infrared sensors; 200 to monitor and surveil the terrain; 658 for high-speed communications; and 200 to detect space debris.

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