Japan's Evolving Space Program

Interview with Saadia M. Pekkanen
September 9, 2011

As the United States ends its shuttle program and scales down manned space exploration, Asian states continue to invest in their space programs, both civilian and military. Although much attention is focused on China, Japan is also primed to become a major Asian space player. In an interview with NBR, National Asia Research Associate Saadia Pekkanen examines Japan’s evolving program and places it in the context of other regional space programs. Pekkanen is the Job & Gertrud Tamaki Professor in the Henry M. Jackson School of Interntational Studies at the University of Washington.

Which Asian states have the most significant space programs?

Japan, China, India, and South Korea are important space players in Asia. As elsewhere, Asian space programs can be characterized as dual-use with crossovers between civil and military technologies. This means that while their most publicized space aspirations focus on civilian dimensions, these states can also be players in military space activities.

Japan has the latest rocket and satellite capabilities for both civilian and military uses. It has independent capabilities for solid- and liquid-fuel rockets and a wide spectrum of advanced satellites that can be reconfigured for military uses. Japan has conducted manned space activities and space science missions and is now planning human spaceflight. Importantly, its developments on all fronts have taken place in plain sight of the public and under constitutional mandates stressing the peaceful uses of space.

Information on China’s programs is more restricted, but what is known about its space developments deserves attention. China has made impressive strides in terms of manned space capabilities, including planned lunar and planetary missions as well as a space station. The military aspects of China’s space program have also drawn considerable attention, particularly in terms of its anti-satellite capabilities and, most recently, the expansion of its reconnaissance satellite network to potentially support real-time tactical operations.

India’s space program has stressed developing complex satellite systems, especially for remote sensing and communication purposes, as well as more powerful space launch vehicles. Building on its rocket and unmanned lunar mission capabilities, India further plans to independently launch and run its own dedicated space science missions in the future, including those involving human spaceflight.

Finally, South Korean satellite and space launch vehicle technologies remain a work in progress. Nevertheless, South Korea has officially expressed an interest in acquiring a continuous satellite observation system around the Korean Peninsula, an indigenous space launch vehicle, satellite technology for lunar exploration, and advanced technology for manned spaceflight.

How do Japan’s space program and the other various Asian space programs intersect? Is resource sharing occurring among nations?

As elsewhere, Asian space programs primarily focus on the national level. On both the commercial and military fronts, the planning, production, and direction of these programs respond to national imperatives. Issues of prestige and rivalry are also considerations in contemporary Asia and no doubt reinforce this tendency. However, there are four specific ways in which Asian space programs can potentially intersect.

First, the acquisition, advancement, and control of the underlying technologies unite all space aspirants and also serve as the fundamental basis for exchange and/or rivalry between them. Second, Asian space players have either ratified or acceded to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, though some harbor reservations about its continued usefulness as a basis for an international space law structure.

Third, Asian space programs intersect in terms of bilateral agreements or memoranda between national space agencies that provide a basis for specific and limited cooperation with other Asian players in the region. Examples include the Japanese-Indian agreement related to disaster management, the Japanese–South Korean agreement related to aerospace, and long-standing Chinese-Pakistani agreements related to space and specifically satellite technology.

And fourth there are also region-wide ventures, led by the two dominant space players, China and Japan, which deserve attention. These include the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO), led by China, and established formally in 2005 with several countries in and out of Asia. Its stated objective is to promote the peaceful use and industrialization of space technology. Then there is the flexible and voluntary Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum (APRSAF), led by Japan, which began operations in 1993 and is now billed as the largest space-related conference in the region. It serves as a forum for space-related information interchange among participants from Asia, North America, Europe, and beyond.

Why has there been a shift in emphasis in Japan’s space program from commercial to military applications?

Over time, public and private efforts to indigenize space technology dovetailed with several factors that further pushed Japan toward the militarization of its space assets. These were covered in the book In Defense of Japan: From the Market to the Military in Space Policy, which I co-authored with Paul Kallender-Umezu from Space News. These factors specifically included changing security realities, corporate interests, domestic political realities, and the presence of a military space race in Asia.

First, it is widely known that North Korea’s erratic missile launches have played a role. However, the continuing territorial and maritime disputes in Asia, and China’s increasing assertiveness, have spurred Japanese defense planners toward even more integrated military uses of space. This is beyond an interest in deepening U.S.-Japan cooperation in ballistic missile defense (BMD), which is already taking place. Japan also seeks to keep pace with the United States’ changing views about space threats and responses within military space planning.

Second, despite the technological sophistication and reliability of Japanese space technology, Japan has not made inroads thus far in the very tight worldwide commercial markets, which continue to be dominated by more established players. Japan’s private manufacturers of space technologies thus have an incentive to lobby for other outlets, such as military uses, whether at home or abroad.

Third, unlike nuclear technology, which once again has received emotional public condemnation in the aftermath of the March 11 disasters, space technology is not stigmatized in Japanese domestic politics. Moreover, its dual-use complexity along with widespread integration into civilian life further shields space technology from public criticism. Unless something drastic happens, a Japanese public, increasingly sensitive to the country’s relative perch with China and North Korea, is not likely to oppose space assets that are justified on national security grounds.

And finally, as China’s air force chief put it, a military space race is inevitable. In fact, it is here. To think otherwise is naive. China’s increasing prowess in military space has not just galvanized the United States. It also concerns all other Asian space powers. Japan demonstrated its potential counterspace capabilities well ahead of the known curve, and it is now focused on small satellite developments in partnership with universities and institutes that can potentially help take its autonomous proximity operations to newer technological heights. The Indian military has also responded to China, stating the need to optimize space applications for military purposes.

What do you see as the limits to the growth of Japan’s space program?

Although economic and fiscal hurdles exist, the budget is not the biggest problem. Japan has already developed a world-class space industry on a shoestring. Its estimated official space budget averages less than $4 billion a year, which puts it at roughly half the budget of something like the U.S. National Science Foundation. It is difficult not to be impressed by what the country has achieved thus far. Measure for measure, the development of Japan’s space technologies may be among the most, if not the most, efficient in terms of cost-effectiveness. The problem is also not pacifist constitutional constraints that appeared to urge the use of space for exclusively peaceful purposes, as this concept was at last clarified through Japan’s Basic Space Law in 2008. The biggest limiting factor for Japan will probably be human capital, as the Japanese cadre of scientists and engineers that constitute the space workforce diminish further in the face of demographic challenges. The estimated space workforce for Japan today is roughly 6,500 workers, in comparison to China’s 50,000. One virtue of the small satellite development efforts in Japan is that spreading this work into universities and other institutes helps to cultivate younger engineering and scientific talents.

Some commentators speak of China as the next great space power. Is this an accurate portrayal?

It may very well be that China is poised to be such a power. Certainly, the Chinese space program today commands attention in the same way the Soviet one did in the 1950s, when it took the early lead in the space race. There are solid reasons to be awed by China’s achievements at a time when the United States, arguably the greatest space power of the last century, has its astronauts hitch rides on Russian rockets. China has made impressive technological strides in both its civilian and military space programs, largely due to strong financial assistance, a robust human scientific and engineering capital base, and a directed and involved governmental leadership that seems determined to go beyond the symbolic prestige factor of space to harness its commercial and military power.

The issue is not so much whether China is a significant space power; clearly it already is. The issue is whether it will surpass the United States, still the preeminent civil and military space power, in terms of budget and technologies. At a budgetary level, China has some distance to go to catch up with the United States, as does every single other space player in the world. Estimates suggest that the United States accounts for close to 75% of all known government space budgets worldwide; it also accounts for close to the same, or probably an even higher, percentage of known military space funding.

In terms of actual technologies, we need to have a better understanding of whether China’s space program is sustainable and safe in the long run. Since information on China’s program is restricted, the forecasts we hear today may be overblown (such as that the first human outpost on the moon will be Chinese) or even underestimated (such as that Chinese reconnaissance capabilities may be far better than we suspect).

But if things stay the course internally in China, if the Chinese leadership does not overextend its space ventures financially and technologically in the military arena, and if China’s space advancements remain unchallenged amid the economic turmoil afflicting other players today, then China may well emerge as an even greater space power.

What is the role of the United States in engaging with Asian space programs, specifically Japan’s program?

Although the United States has had a competitive relationship with Japan in space technologies, it now focuses on cooperation with its foremost security ally in the region. There are already a number of bilateral agreements between the two countries and their space agencies. NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), for example, have cooperated successfully on Earth science missions such as measuring tropical rainfall and global precipitation. They have also cooperated on joint missions involving Japanese astronauts who flew alongside American ones in the now-retired U.S. space shuttle program to the international space station. On the military side, there is long-standing cooperation over BMD between the United States and Japan. Under a new national security space strategy, the U.S. government is also engaged in forging new partnerships to augment its space capabilities and to deter the use of counterspace technologies against space assets. It has already moved forward in doing so with several countries, specifically on satellites and space situational awareness. Unsurprisingly, the United States has also engaged in talks with Japan through the Security Consultative Committee (SCC), which recognized evolving threats to outer space and cyberspace.

In dealing with what Washington calls the congested, contested, and competitive nature of outer space, the United States seeks to build international collaboration and to rely on the private industrial base to advance and protect its space interests. In this respect, Japan is a natural ally.

This interview was conducted by Kate Wilkinson, a Bridge Award Fellow at NBR.