Amid Shift in Power, Japan Seeks Space Budget Hike

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TOKYO — The Japanese government has proposed a 25 percent funding increase for space activity for the upcoming fiscal year, to 436 billion yen ($4.7 billion), a sum that is spread across various ministries for a host of programs including Earth observation, navigation and launch vehicle development.

But how that request, which was released by the prime minister’s cabinet office Sept. 1, will fare is an open question, in part because of the Aug. 31 elections that will bring the longtime opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DJP) into power in mid-September, officials and analysts said. Typically budget requests are heavily trimmed by the Ministry of Finance in December for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins April 1. Last year, for example, the government requested a 29 percent increase for space activities, but the Finance Ministry reduced that to a 10.4 percent boost, according to Hirohisa Mori, senior coordinator in the Strategic Headquarters for Space Policy (SHSP). But this year’s request is “very difficult” to read, he said in a Sept. 2 interview.

Mori said this year’s proposed increases are dominated by programs mandated by the SHSP’s June 2009 Basic Plan for Space Policy, which resulted from legislation passed last year designed to revamp Japanese space policy, placing more emphasis on national security and applications. The Basic Plan recommended that 2.5 trillion yen be budgeted for space activities from 2010 through 2014.

While the feeling within the SHSP is that the DJP is “not negative” toward space activity, the appointment of a new state minister for space, expected Sept. 17, introduces uncertainty, Mori said.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, which oversees the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, has asked for an increase of 68.8 billion yen, to 265.5 billion yen, for space activities. Driving the increase are plans for a follow-on to the Daichi Earth observation satellite, a Venus probe dubbed Planet-C, a satellite for the planned Quasi Zenith GPS augmentation system, and a new Advanced Solid Rocket for launching relatively small payloads. The budget also includes funds to study a lunar lander and for microsatellite development, the ministry said, according to figures released by the cabinet office.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, meanwhile, is asking to nearly double its space budget, to 17.9 billion yen, a sum that includes 4.6 billion yen for a planned fleet of medium-sized Earth observation satellites and 5.9 billon yen for sensor development, the budget documents show.

On the national security side, which is expected to get increased attention following last year’s passage of the Basic Law for Space Activities that relaxed longstanding restrictions on military satellites, the cabinet office is asking for an increase of 2.4 billion yen, to 66.6 billion, for the Information Gathering System series of radar and electro-optical surveillance satellites. The Ministry of Defense is seeking an increase of 3.8 billion yen, to 61.8 billion yen, for its own space-related activity. That sum includes 20.3 billion yen for satellite imagery and satellite communications services and 40.2 billion yen for missile defense.

Keiko Nakano, a Defense Ministry spokeswoman, said Sept. 1 the defense budget request also includes much smaller sums to study new military capabilities including: space situational awareness, an air-launched rocket and microsatellites (39 million yen); a dedicated military communications satellite (57 million yen); and infrared missile warning sensor technology (8 million yen).

The Japan Business Federation, the nation’s largest and most powerful business lobby, expects the new administration to follow through on the Basic Plan’s commitments. However, “nobody really knows, what will happen” Satoshi Tsuzukibashi, director of the organization’s Office of Defense Production, said in an Aug. 26 interview.

Koichi Ijichi, managing director of the Institute for Unmanned Space Experiment Free Flyer, which implements METI space projects, said that the institute expected to receive “most” of its request. “We are already manufacturing some parts and we have asked for just what we need … nothing more. Besides, the wind seems to be blowing behind METI these days,” he said in a Sept. 2 interview.

Kazuto Suzuki, associate professor of international political economy at Hokkaido University and an expert on Japanese space policy, said he does not expect a major upheaval following the election, which ousted the Liberal Democratic Party. “There was a tacit consensus on around a 25 percent increase between the bureaucracy, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Ministry of Finance. The DPJ is committed to putting all the inherited requests under review,” he said.

Suzuki said that while DPJ officials railed against bureaucratic waste and promised to appoint activist ministers to seize control of the budget, the party supported the Basic Law for Space Activities, which set the basis for this year’s Basic Policy.

“The DPJ clearly supported the establishment of the SHSP and the policy and direction are already written. There is going to be a change of style and maybe of management, but we have no indication right now that the DPJ is looking to cut the space budget,” Suzuki said.

Suzuki nonetheless said it is unlikely that the entire proposed 25 percent increase for space activities will be approved. He said one or two high-profile programs could be in for significant cuts when the new Ministry of Finance weighs in come December.