Japan’s Military Will Patrol Earth’s Orbitals

Their first foe? Astronaut litter.

Japan’s military plans to take defense to the heavens in 2019. According to a report by Japan’s Kyodo News Agency, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces plan to add a space monitoring branch, to be jointly run by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and Air Self-Defence Force. The “fourth battlefield”–space–contains a lot of stuff that’s worth protecting, and Japan is hardly the first military to consider it.

Space is big business. A 2013 report from the Satellite Industry Association says that satellites made $189.5 billion in revenue in 2012. Besides the sheer value of the business, these satellites perform valuable functions for humans on earth. Since the launch of Telstar in 1962, satellites have relayed terrestrial communications, and today both cars and smartphones rely on GPS satellites to know exactly where they are. Japan’s proposed space force would monitor Earth’s orbitals with radar and telescopes, looking for harmful debris that threatens satellites. This isn’t an inherently apolitical, altruistic task. In 2007, regional rival China blew up one of its own satellites, proving that it can in fact destroy satellites, and creating harmful debris for other geo-stationary machines. In May, Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency signed an agreement with the United States where they promised to give information on space debris to U.S. Strategic Command. NASA, together with the Department of Defense, already have progams in place monitoring space debris.

The architecture of space has always had a military underpinning. American nuclear submarines, hiding out at sea, used geo-locating satellites to calculate target trajectories, so that they could reliably hit the same points on earth from anywhere. Even as American troopers started fighting in Afghanistan, the Department of Defense was floating ideas about “Space Control” to make sure that nothing in space threatened the important American satellites already there.

This new development out of Japan does not come unheralded. In 2008, the country passed a Basic Space Law, which changed previous laws regarding space in a key way: “Non-military use” became “non-aggressive use.” This allows Japan the possibility of defensive military action in space, where before the country was limited by previous law and their constitution’s intensely pacifistic Article 9. While on Earth, Japan has slowly grown its military, it’s unlikely that a new space force means we’ll see Japanese war satellites anytime soon. Japan, like the United States, is one of 89 countries that signed the Outer Space Treaty, which formally prohibits putting and testing weapons in space.