Can Japan keep up in the 21st-century space race? by OUE Sadamasa

“API Geoeconomic Briefing” is a weekly analysis of significant geopolitical and geoeconomic developments in the post-pandemic world. The briefing is written by experts at Asia Pacific Initiative (API) and includes an assessment of burgeoning trends in international politics and economics and the possible impact on Japan’s national interests and strategic response. (Editor-in-chief: Dr. HOSOYA Yuichi, Research Director, API & Professor, Faculty of Law, Keio University)

This article was posted to the Japan Times on December 10, 2020:

API Geoeconomic Briefing

December 10, 2020

Can Japan keep up in the 21st-century space race?

OUE Sadamasa, Senior Fellow, Asia Pacific Initiative (API),
Lieutenant General, Japan Air Self-Defense Force (Ret.)




Outer space is the new front line of a technology race between superpowers, triggering increased geopolitical and geoeconomic risks.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were the major players in the race. But the power balance has shifted in recent years with China launching rockets and gaining the capability to destroy the satellites of other countries.

What needs to be done to prevent a space war, and what should Japan be doing to keep up with the international race in space development?

On Sept. 23, a conference on BeiDou-3, China’s global navigation satellite system, was held in Wuhan, Hubei province.

The BeiDou system, whose 55th and final satellite was launched June 23, is already used in more than 120 countries and regions. The total output of China’s satellite navigation system industry is estimated to have reached 345 billion yuan (¥5.26 trillion).

Meanwhile, in the United States, President Donald Trump, who in late May attended the launch of a manned spacecraft by SpaceX — the first crewed flight from U.S. soil in nine years — said, “The United States will harness the unrivaled creativity and speed of our private sector to stride ever further into the unknown.”

Also noting that he signed a law last year to create a branch of the military known as the United States Space Force, Trump said, “The United States has regained our place of prestige as the world leader. As has often been stated, you can’t be No. 1 on Earth if you are No. 2 in space. And we are not going to be No. 2 anywhere.”

Japan is a pioneer in space technology, having been the fourth nation in the world to launch a satellite. But it has banned the use of space for military purposes and has faced a hard battle since the 1990s in expanding its commercial use as well.

Belatedly, the government adopted a new national defense guideline in 2018, which emphasized the need to gain predominance in the domains of outer space, cyberspace and electromagnetic spectrum.

And, on June 30, the Cabinet approved the Basic Plan on Space Policy to strengthen the nation’s space development and use in view of the increasing presence of other countries such as the U.S. and China.

Outer space has been the front line of competition among superpowers both as an important market for next-generation economic development and as the fourth battlefield to fight for supremacy in the future.

A variety of services provided by satellites have already become a necessity of everyday life. Satellite data is used in diverse sectors including agriculture, disaster prevention and infrastructure management, in addition to communications, meteorology, positioning and navigation.

The use of outer space will become crucial in the digital society of the future.

Private-sector space businesses are expanding rapidly overseas in such areas as development of small satellites and rockets, improvement of infrastructure to provide satellite data, as well as resource exploration and space tourism.

According to the U.S.-based Space Foundation, the global space business reached $423.8 billion (¥45 trillion) in 2019.

Unfortunately, however, the Society of Japanese Aerospace Companies’ statistics show the total output of Japan’s space-related businesses in the same year was only ¥343.1 billion.

Japan needs to create a drastic competitive strategy, while taking into account the issues surfacing due to fierce competition among other countries.

First, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty states that outer space should be free for exploration and use by all mankind, and that outer space, including the moon and celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by any means. But the Earth’s orbit is already crowded with satellites, and competition is intensifying over lunar resources and locations to build lunar bases in the future.

The aforementioned SpaceX has already launched 833 small satellites into orbit to build a satellite internet constellation, with an aim of increasing the number to 42,000 eventually to cover all areas on Earth.

China is expanding its Space Information Corridor to Africa and South America by undertaking developing countries’ satellite projects and securing technological and economic influence over those nations.

Outer space is becoming a market closely linked to economic activity on the ground, but the world lacks an order to manage and regulate the competition.


Dual-use space activities

The second issue derives from the fact that space activities essentially serve both military and civilian purposes.

Just as the United States’ GPS, initially developed for military use, is widely used for civilian purposes, China’s BeiDou system will be used for military purposes as well.

As a matter of fact, the main reason why China developed its own satellite system was to overcome the vulnerability of having its military be dependent on GPS — a good example of U.S.-China decoupling.

China launched the world’s first quantum communications satellite, Micius, and succeeded in sending a quantum-encrypted message beamed down from the orbiting satellite to a facility on the ground.

The nation’s Chang’e 4 mission became the first to land on the far side of the moon, with the ultimate goal of establishing a crewed moon base.

All of the projects have extremely important military implications.

Countries are launching objects with anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities to obstruct, intercept or destroy other nations’ satellites. But just as the sampling technology used in Japan’s Hayabusa asteroid explorer can be applied to an ASAT system, it is hard to differentiate military and civilian uses.

Therefore, it is necessary to ensure transparency in the use of satellites to establish a framework for global restriction and arms control of ASAT satellites, which is also the reason why the Space Situational Awareness (SSA) objects monitoring system is in the spotlight.

Lastly, there is the issue of the various risks that hamper the stable use of outer space.

In addition to accidents caused by satellites colliding with space debris or other satellites, there are many cases already taking place involving cyberattacks targeting communications links between satellites and ground stations.

In fact, outer space and cyberspace are closely connected with each other and there is a possibility in the future of ransomware attacks targeting unidentified satellites.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Air Force invited hackers and cybersecurity researchers to Hack-a-Sat, an online contest to hack an actual satellite to identify bugs and other flaws that could be used by potential enemies.

It is urgently needed to create a system to avoid diversifying risks, confine damage, find out who the cyberattackers are, pursue liability and compensate victims.

Outer space emerged as an operational domain in actual war during the 1990-91 Gulf War, when satellites’ functions, including GPS, communications and information gathering, and precision-guided munitions utilizing such technologies were used.

Since then, the U.S. military has built a ballistic missile defense system against threats from such countries as North Korea and put multi-domain operations (MDO) based on BMD at the core of its strategic concept for the future.

MDO is the collection of systems that interconnects all censors and attack/defense mechanisms, with satellites bearing a key function.

China’s ASAT test conducted in January 2007 came as a shock to the U.S., just like the Soviet launch of satellite Sputnik 50 years earlier, triggering the development of outer space as a war-fighting domain.

China launched a ballistic missile and destroyed one of its aged weather satellites some 865 kilometers up in space, resulting in more than 3,300 pieces of space debris scattered in the Earth’s orbit.

As well as raising international concerns over the debris and increasing distrust toward China, the test demonstrated Beijing’s ASAT capabilities and made the U.S. and Russia think of war in space as a realistic possibility.

To protect satellites from risks of space debris collision and ASAT threats, SSA is indispensable to track and predict locations of objects in outer space. The U.S. has created in cooperation with its allies the Space Surveillance Network (SSN), comprising optical telescopes, radars and surveillance satellites in various areas.

SSA is also the primary duty of the Air Self-Defense Force’s Space Operations Squadron, which was newly created in May.

Since attacks on satellites can be made without warning, SSA duties are conducted continuously at normal times as grey zone operations.


A lack of guidelines

In other words, SSA activities conducted for stable use of space and operations to assure satellites’ military functions are consecutively linked.

The problem is that, just as with cyber domains, no code of conduct or theory for the right to exercise self-defense or deter future attacks in space are established, while there is a danger of terrestrial conflicts suddenly expanding to outer space or, conversely, cyberattacks to satellites developing into battles on land, sea and air.

The U.S. has given the authority and responsibility to protect and operate all space assets to the chief of space operations of the United States Space Force launched in December last year, building up full-fledged operational capabilities in the space domain.

China, under President Xi Jinping’s military reforms, integrated operations across the air, outer space and cyberspace domains in its Air Force, and at the same time created the Space Systems Department and the Network Systems Department under its Strategic Support Force to strengthen coordination between outer space and cyberspace operations.

Meanwhile, in Japan, the ASDF plans to upgrade the Space Operations Squadron to a larger military entity, or a group, in the next fiscal year, but it is lacking sufficient budget, human resources and experience.

It is necessary to train the unit quickly through cooperation with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the private sector, as well as by expanding participation in such programs as the U.S. military’s Schriever Wargame, a space-focused training event.

Activities in outer space are spreading at an unprecedented speed, bringing about higher geopolitical and geoeconomic risks, but there are surprisingly few international treaties governing such activities, and those that do exist are outdated.

The Outer Space Treaty, the mainframe for space law, took effect in 1967, and most of the other treaties and United Nations principles on outer space were enacted before the 2000s.

During the Cold War, there was a tacit understanding between the U.S. and the Soviet Union not to attack satellites, and there was virtually no other country that could get involved in space activities. Outer space was peaceful and stable.

However, the power balance in outer space has changed drastically, with China, which advocates military-civil fusion, conducting more rocket launches than the U.S. and Russia and holding ASAT capabilities.

At the same time, space activities, which had been conducted mainly by the governments and military of the Western countries, are increasingly shifting to the private sector, as can be seen in the case of SpaceX.

The international order is not catching up with this power shift among countries and from the public sector to the private sector, and China is taking advantage of this situation to make advances.

Japan has developed its own space technologies by overcoming various constraints and has been involved in a number of international projects such as the International Space Station.

Outer space is the front line of competition among superpowers and it is desirable for Japan to take a leadership role along with Western countries to construct a new comprehensive international order for the peaceful use of outer space from a geopolitical and geoeconomic standpoint.

Domestically, Japan’s challenge is to build the kind of ecosystem in which the development of the space industry strengthens its defense capabilities and users, such as the Defense Ministry, helping the space and defense industry grow more.

There are moves to create a law on the ownership of space resources and this presents the possibility for a variety of measures being taken to reduce risks and raise incentives for private companies entering the business.

The key is to strengthen competitiveness by utilizing consumer products and also generate private demand, as well as developing a new market by expanding the use of the government’s free satellite data platform Tellus and quasi-zenith satellites.

It is also of great significance for Japan to seek achievements in projects involving international cooperation and public-private partnerships, especially the Artemis Plan led by the U.S. to send astronauts to the moon, which Japan has decided to take part in.

The Basic Plan on Space Policy lists comprehensively and in detail the challenges and projects on space activities that Japan should work on. The issue is to implement the plan speedily and on a large scale.

In order to strengthen the relationship between the Defense Ministry, JAXA and private businesses including startups with potential, and realize the creation of a space protocol together with countries such as the U.S., the government’s Space Development Strategy Headquarters should have an awareness and a strategy to stand on the front line of superpower competition in space.


The views expressed in this API Geoeconomic Briefing do not necessarily reflect those of the API, the API Institute of Geoeconomic Studies or any other organizations to which the author belongs.