By Fang Xiaozhi
Japan is one of the few countries in the world that possess advanced space technology and development capabilities. In the past few years, Japan has accelerated military buildup for space forces. The Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono said recently that the Space Domain Mission Unit, first space force of the Self-Defense Force, will be officially established on May 18. According to reports, the Space Domain Mission Unit will be located at the Fuchu Base of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force in Fuchu City, Tokyo. The Space Domain Mission Unit will be tasked with tracking space debris and meteorites that could hit Japanese surveillance satellites orbiting earth, Kono said. It is reported that the new space unit will be staffed with around 20 personnel initially and the numbers will grow to about 120 in the future. It is expected to start operation in 2023 formally.
Japan's strategic intent behind this move is, to optimize the organizational structure of its space military power, mobilizing its own power and external support comprehensively, so as to seize the initiative in space military. Japan's former Defense Minister Gen Nakatani once said blatantly, "Whoever controls the space will be in a position to control the world, and the space control power will become one of the main prerequisites for the fight for air and sea power."
Documents that Japan issued in recent years highlighted the necessity of developing space force for national security, and clarified Japan's core projects of future space militarization. In December 2018, Japan further classified space as a key strategic domain that has become a matter of life and death in its latest National Defense Program Outline (NDPG), declaring that comprehensive measures should be taken to ensure Japan's dominant position in space.
The establishment of the Space Domain Mission Unit also manifests that Japan's strengthening military buildup in new domains of space, cyberspace, and electromagnetics in recent years, which has lead to progress in space militarization construction. It regards space as a crucial field in military strategy, equivalent to or even more critical than conventional warfare. Thus, Japan has planned in advance and given priority to space development, to ensure that it will go undefeated in international space competition.
Given the current competitive situation in security among major powers, Japan's move also intends to coordinate with the US strategic deployment. Space military cooperation is a new growth point for their bilateral defense cooperation, which will inject impetus to alliance strengthening. At present, Japan is in a relatively subordinate position while the United States might be more superior in the Japan-US space cooperation.
The competition in space is becoming a high ground of the future military game. If being able to make remarkable progress in such aspects as space surveillance and attack, and display its advantage in orbital reconnaissance, monitoring, and damage, Japan might keep consistent in space combat capabilities and form a coordinated relationship with the US, so as to obtain a more significant say and progressively improved position in Japan-US alliance and cooperation.
Japan's strategic goal is "becoming a space power in parallel with the United States, Russia, and Europe in the 21st century". It is predictable that as the new round of international competition in space grows increasingly fierce, Japan will continue to utilize and expand its edge in space technology. It will take small-win strategy to step up the development of new-type space weaponry, adjust and optimize the deployment and organizational structure of space forces, to build a more sophisticated space operational system with the integration of "reconnaissance, offense, defense, and support."
On the other hand, Japan might also proactively seek cooperation with other countries and strengthen cooperation with countries and regions such as the United States, Europe, Australia, and India through the joint efforts with space powers and the establishment of military space alliance to achieve "complementary advantages." This would indirectly serve to enhance Japan’s military capabilities in space, thereby making up for its deficiency of capabilities, and implementing the sharing of both benefits and responsibilities in space development.
In general, Japan's trend towards space militarization has been irreversible, and its impact on international space security deserves our long-term attention and high vigilance.
(Fang Xiaozhi, a researcher at the Institute of Strategic Studies and International Security, Fudan Institute of Belt and Road & Global Governance)