A ceremony to inaugurate the Self-Defense Forces' first space unit is held on May 18 at the Defense Ministry in Tokyo. | KYODO

OSAKA – Defense Minister Taro Kono officially inaugurated Japan’s first Space Operations Squadron during a May 18 ceremony in Tokyo. The squadron’s realization marks a large step forward for the nation’s space ambitions at a time when, due to an increased number of satellite launches, the Earth’s near space is more crowded than ever. Here’s a look at the squadron and its mission.

What is the structure and mission of the Space Operations Squadron?

The new squadron, located at Tokyo’s Fuchu Air Base, is part of the Air Self-Defense Force. It is made up of 20 members, which will gradually be expanded to 100 when it becomes operational in 2023.

The squadron’s official mission is to protect Japanese satellites from damage, including armed attacks, to monitor space debris, and to keep an eye out for meteorites and other satellites. It will also collaborate and share expertise with the U.S. Space Command, which has 16,000 civilian and military personnel and was established last year, the U.S. Department of Defense and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). However, it’s important to note that the squadron, contrary to its image, has no weapons to protect satellites.

How did the creation of the squadron come about?

Historically, Japan’s position was that all space development should only be done for peaceful purposes. A Diet resolution in 1969, when the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA) was created, called for the development of space only for peaceful, nonmilitary purposes.

This remained the official policy until 2008 when the Basic Space Law was passed. Among other things, this law cleared the way for Japan to expand its space development efforts for national security reasons and in accordance with other international agreements on space.

From the beginning of official efforts to develop space programs, cooperation with the United States, especially the Department of Defense and U.S. defense firms, was of paramount importance. The April 2015 guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation included a section on space. It committed the two nations to provide mutual support in the area of space situational awareness (SSA) cooperation. Simply put, this meant that Japan and the U.S. government and firms with space technology and satellite expertise would work together to develop technologies that would more effectively monitor natural and man-made space objects such as satellites and debris in the Earth’s orbit.

These new systems, of which the new squadron is a part, will identify and counter threats to either their satellites or those of other nations, such as Australia.

In addition to SSA, the 2015 guidelines listed a number of areas related to space in which the U.S. military and Self-Defense Forces would cooperate. Those include the developing of early-warning radar and communications systems and intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) systems, command and control, communications and meteorological observation, among others.

Defense Minister Taro Kono hands the unit flag of the Space Operations Squadron to the head of the unit, Toshihide Ashiki, on May 18. | KYODO

Japan and the U.S. also agreed that, in cases where their space systems are threatened, the U.S. armed forces and Self-Defense Forces will cooperate, as needed, in mitigating risk and preventing damage.

In 2018, the Defense Ministry published its national defense program guidelines for the 2019 fiscal year and beyond. In the space domain, the guidelines said the SDF will actively leverage civilian technologies and work with JAXA, as well as the United States and other countries. A separate defense program for the 2019-2023 fiscal year period said the SDF would establish an Air Self-Defense Force space domain squadron “in order to conduct persistent monitoring of situations in space, and to ensure superiority in the use of space at all stages from peacetime to armed contingencies.” That is the current squadron that was inaugurated on May 18.

Why was the creation of a space squadron considered necessary?

In a video message of congratulations to the Self-Defense Forces on the establishment of the space squadron, U.S. officials spoke of specific threats in space from other countries. Lt. Gen. Kevin Schneider of the Yokota, Kanagawa Prefecture-based Fifth Air Force warned that China, North Korea and Russia have the potential to upset regional peace and stability, and that threats continue to grow at an exponential rate. Both the U.S. and Japan have grown increasingly worried that more satellites from these countries, especially China, could attack satellites, jam signals or create debris that could cause problems.

What is the role of the U.S. in the new space squadron and Japan’s space strategy?

The U.S. and Japan have a number of ways in which they cooperate and coordinate policy. The U.S.-Japan Comprehensive Dialogue on Space is the main government-to-government forum, bringing together officials from space, technology and military ministries and agencies. On the U.S. side, the meetings are co-chaired by representatives from the National Space Council and the National Security Council. On the Japanese side, the co-chairs are representatives from the Foreign Ministry and the National Space Policy Secretariat of the Cabinet Office.

Among other initiatives, this group announced in 2019, just before the Group of 20 meeting in Osaka, that private sector involvement in space technology development, especially in the field of SSA, from both countries would be encouraged. Japan and the U.S. also announced plans last year to host U.S.-built SSA sensor technology on a Japanese Quasi-Zenith Satellite System, which is compatible with and enhances the GPS satellite.

What are some of the nontechnical issues the squadron faces in setting up operations?

The biggest one appears to be the lack of legal precedent for such a squadron and how to make it effective without violating the pacifist Constitution.

When responding to either real or perceived military threats in space, there may be no time to confirm whether an attack from a hostile foreign power is truly imminent and a pre-emptive counter strike is justified under the Constitution. That is likely to stoke fierce debate in the Diet and among constitutional scholars and military experts about what legal and operational limits should be placed on such a squadron to avoid accidentally stumbling into a conflict that might begin in the unseen reaches of outer space, but could quickly turn into a terrestrial conflict as well.

By Eric Johnston, The Japan Times

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