The policy change being sought by Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that would permit the nation’s military to utilize space is long overdue and should be adopted as expeditiously as possible.
There is nothing remotely radical about what the LDP group is proposing: No one is talking about space-based weapons. This is about Japan’s government being able to deploy space-based sensors or communications systems without having to do rhetorical somersaults to reconcile such actions with the 1969 parliamentary resolution that limits Japan’s use of space to peaceful purposes.
It could be argued that the peaceful purposes resolution, as it is known, was outdated from the beginning. After all, it is far more restrictive than the U.N. Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which provides the basis for international space law and, except for prohibitions against deploying weapons of mass destruction in space, does not bar military organizations from utilizing the medium.
That Japan imposed more-sweeping limits on itself in creating its national space agency is understandable — the nation’s post-war constitution renouncing war was barely two decades old at the time, and memories of that catastrophic conflict were still fresh in the minds of its adult citizens. But that was 1969, and a lot has changed since then, both in terms of threats and technology.
And so has the government’s interpretation of the resolution. In the mid 1980s, for example, the interpretation was liberalized to enable Japan’s military to use satellite communications services. That illustrates just how restrictive the original interpretation was as well as Japan’s recognition of the need to adapt.
A far more sweeping reinterpretation occurred after North Korea’s surprise launch of a missile over Japanese territory in August 1998. That incident was a wake-up call that led Japan to initiate a program to launch four so-called Information Gathering Satellites.
The purpose of these optical and radar imaging satellites was to keep tabs on Japan’s unpredictable and often belligerent neighbor, a defensive military application if there ever was one. In order to justify this prudent measure, the Japanese government noted that imagery of the quality to be taken by the Information Gathering Satellites already was available commercially and that the satellites also had nonmilitary applications.
The latter claim was somewhat dubious, especially given how secretive Japan has been about the system, and similar claims certainly won’t fly if Japan presses ahead with a missile-warning satellite as a logical adjunct to the missile defense systems it plans to deploy in the near future.
In any case, the interpretation of the peaceful purposes resolution already has been stretched to the breaking point, if not beyond. The time has come for a new resolution that gives Japan’s government the flexibility it needs to use space for legitimate self-defense purposes.