With the United States’ December 21, 2019 creation of a separate and sovereign branch of its military completely devoted to space, the U.S. Space Force, the global race to emancipate a portion of national military power from terrestrial shackles and place it firmly into orbit is on.
The announcement also unleashed a somewhat unexpected cascading effect: the increased attention paid to military space activities by U.S. allies and partners, who have no choice but to follow where the U.S. military moves its gravitational pull. In particular, Japan has made announcements in recent days that indicate its intention to remain in lockstep with the United States, at least in terms of defense.
On January 5, 2020, scarcely two weeks following the U.S. Space Force announcement, the Japanese government indicated it plans to rename the Japan Air Self Defense Force to the Japan Aerospace Defense Force. Not coincidentally, on January 21, during a speech given on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the U.S.-Japan Alliance, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to make the alliance “a pillar for safeguarding peace and security in both outer space and cyberspace.”
While words are good, actions are better. In a less-noticed but more consequential move, the Ministry of Defense is finalizing a bill to be placed before the Diet that asks to craft a space operations-exclusive military unit staffed with 20 personnel. While this paltry number of people can barely be expected to efficiently run their task of monitoring space debris and “suspicious satellites,” the move is a significant step for a nation that often struggles with global defense developments due to Japan’s unique domestic restrictions and legal concerns. In many ways, it is surprising to see Japan, a nation that still sorties 1960s-era F-4 aircraft (though there are plans to replace them with F-35s), and is fielding their very first military Remote Piloted Aircraft (a model the United States has been flying for nearly 20 years) in 2021, take its defense posture in space seriously.
These initiatives have several implications. First, the Japanese government’s attitude toward space and its place in the U.S.-Japan alliance reflects what’s at stake during the next major conflict, which will surely involve space. As an increasing number of government and commercial systems depend on space assets and space support, space can no longer be ignored as a future theater; the time is now to incorporate space into alliance strategy. This strategy, however, needs to catch up. Currently, Japan refers to space as a “new domain” in the 2018 National Defense Program Guidelines and briefly discusses space defense in the annual 2019 Defense of Japan white paper. Space is completely left out of the now-outdated 2015 Guidelines for U.S.- Japan Defense Cooperation.
Second, Japan’s emphasis is a good move for the alliance as a whole, and enhances its survivability. If Japan takes measurable steps to join its ally and if Japan meaningfully contributes to space security, space is less likely to become another seam where the alliance could come undone.
Further, there is a strategic advantage to taking a stance on both position and form when it comes to space. While other nations will struggle to “get serious” about space, and will need to decide between size, scope, and capability of their forces, Japan has confirmed its political and defensive outlook toward space, which means it has also acknowledged space’s effect on combined alliance defense. This is good, since the political dangers posed in space are very real. Despite the existence of the well-intentioned but toothless Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which prohibits use of force activities in space, the obvious future is that space will act as yet another stage upon which the political games of earthbound nation-states will play out.
Nation-state competition will not disappear as states found and fund forces to travel, explore, and exploit the inky blackness of space; rather, competition will intensify, as discoveries with both economic and defense applications are made, and as states better understand how vulnerable they are without proper space defense and deterrence. This is the political reality of space, and the fact that both members of the U.S.-Japan alliance understand this means the alliance has much less danger of breaking apart upon first contact with space-centric competition. If anything, mutual interest in the same environment will lead to cooperative efforts and a strengthened alliance here on Earth.
Notably, the odds of military confrontation in space have also increased. By funneling U.S. military space power into the highest echelon of military independence and funding (an independent service), escalation and competition is not far behind. It will not be surprising if we see several other competitors forming their own service-level forces by year’s end, though their actual forms will likely vary greatly. The fact that the United States has “jumped” to a service-sized solution to military space competition, and not a smaller organization like a corps or geographic command, means other nations have no real strategic options but to match the U.S. precedent as close as they can in size and capability. The U.S.-Japan alliance must prepare for this eventuality.
Japanese government decisions to strengthen its space defense capabilities thus come from a mix of terrestrial strategy, political realities, and prudent alliance management. However, significant challenges remain. For one thing, today’s nation-states (including the United States) are understandably gun-shy about sharing space defense capabilities and space-centric technology, which means alliance military space activity will naturally move at the speed of the slowest member. For another, we do not yet know just what space-on-space conflict will look like between combatants who possess similar space-based strength, which makes warfare difficult to plan for and will present an immediate challenge to alliance coordination should such a conflict occur.
Despite these doubts, recent Japanese government announces are positive and will help usher both the alliance and U.S.-Japan relations through its current comparatively rocky period of trade spats and quibbles over military basing. Without a doubt, the political impact of allied space defense could easily result in the U.S.-Japan alliance extending its prerogatives beyond Earth’s territorial confines.
Major John Wright is a U.S. Air Force officer, pilot, and a Mike and Maureen Mansfield Fellow. He is a Foreign Area Officer who specializes in Japan, and recent author of the book “Deep Space Warfare: Military Strategy Beyond Orbit.” The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and not necessarily those of the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Government, Mansfield Foundation, or any other government or government entity.