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​US looks to Japan space program to close Pacific communications gap

Published time: August 04, 2014 12:25
A H-2A rocket carrying Daichi-2, an all-purpose earth-surveying satellite tasked with helping to map the planet and aiding with disaster recovery, blasts off from the launching pad at Tanegashima Space Center on the Japanese southwestern island of Tanegashima, in this photo taken by Kyodo May 24, 2014. (Reuters/Kyodo)

A H-2A rocket carrying Daichi-2, an all-purpose earth-surveying satellite tasked with helping to map the planet and aiding with disaster recovery, blasts off from the launching pad at Tanegashima Space Center on the Japanese southwestern island of Tanegashima, in this photo taken by Kyodo May 24, 2014. (Reuters/Kyodo)

Tokyo's space initiative, set for launch in 2019, is turning into an effort to enhance ties with Washington in the cosmos. The US, shifting its military strategy to the Asia-Pacific, is looking for partners to extend its satellite links in the region.

The program would start as a means for protecting communication and surveillance satellites from thousands of pieces of space junk, including old satellites and rockets, now orbiting Earth.

Japan's Air-Defense Force, using sophisticated radar and telescopes, would provide feedback to the US military concerning the location of hazardous space debris, Kyodo news agency, citing sources, reported on Sunday.

The space force would also work with Japan's Science Ministry and the Aerospace Exploration Agency to oversee its observatory work.

The subject of space debris threatening military and commercial satellites grabbed the international spotlight in 2007, when China successfully destroyed one of its non-functioning satellites in a test, putting thousands of potentially destructive pieces of debris into orbit.

However, Japan's newfound interest in outer space - the so-called ‘fourth battlefield’ - has more down-to-earth geopolitical implications as well, and reflects the US military's recent strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific region.

Presently, the US military seems to be experiencing a modern version of 'imperial over-reach,' as it is limited in its ability to communicate with its naval forces across the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean. Last month, the US military announced it would team up with Pacific countries, including Japan and Australia, to ensure satellite and communication coverage for its fleets of aircraft carriers and warships now prowling the Asian region.

The United States is looking to the commercial sector for developing the space architecture, Jessica Powers, a senior Defense Department official, told a panel discussion on Capitol Hill on July 17. However, Powers noted that the United States was not able to pay for extra expenditures on its own needed to cooperate with other countries who can share the costs.

“This resilience cannot be achieved only by US investment. We have to partner with others,” Powers said, as quoted by National Defense website.

Col. Alan Rebholz, chief of the Air Force space operations division, said it is crucial for the US military to prevent enemies from "tampering" with US satellites, which provide the military with the bulk of its data on enemies and potential enemies alike.

However, Rebholz was quick to indicate that the plans for enhanced space cooperation between the three Pacific powers was not directed at China

“It’s not about China,” Rebholz told National Defense. “This is about activity of distance … of what I can do uniquely from space that nobody else can do, which is intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance.”

The Defense official said Australia, Japan and the United States began discussions on outer space collaboration in 2012.

The US Defense Dept. had originally requested the use of Japan's Air Self-Defense Force's FPS5 ground-based radar missile detection system, currently operational in a number of sites, including Shimokoshiki Island.

Originally, it had requested the use of the ASDF’s FPS5 ground-based radar missile detection and evasion radar system, but Japanese authorities rejected the request, saying the ASDF system may fail to provide full protection if it is also participating in space monitoring assignments.