TOKYO — Japan’s satellite reconnaissance program continues its expansion while the nation’s military space program faces a series of difficult choices expected to hold up new starts for several more years, according to Japanese government officials.

Japan’s Information Gathering Satellite program, known as IGS, will launch 10 satellites by 2018, including an extra radar-imaging satellite, an official at the Cabinet Satellite Intelligence Center (CSIC) said Feb. 7.

Two imaging satellites — one optical and one radar — will be launched in 2011 followed in 2012 by another radar-imaging satellite and an experimental satellite meant to advance Japan’s optical imaging capability. Additional pairs of optical and radar satellites will be launched in 2014 and 2016, this official said, adding that the CSIC intends to launch another radar satellite in 2017, budget permitting.

The Information Gathering System is supposed to consist of two radar and two optical satellites at all times, but a series of setbacks over the last seven years have left Japan with just two operational satellites and no IGS radar coverage.

A pair of satellites, IGS-2A and IGS-2B, were destroyed during an H-2A rocket’s November 2003 launch failure. In March 2007, IGS-1B — a radar satellite launched four years earlier — shut down. Finally, Japan’s lone working radar satellite, IGS-4A, ceased operations last August after only three-and-a-half years on orbit.

As a hedge against future service interruption, Japan decided in October to launch an extra radar satellite and boost CSIC’s budget to cover the satellite’s development costs, the official said.

“[W]e have enough budget to include the extra satellite, although at the moment the plan is to continue to maintain a basic four-satellite system for the foreseeable future,” the official said.

Japan’s Ministry of Defense, meanwhile, is taking a cautious approach to space acquisition, weighing its needs against what it can afford, according to officials who spoke to Space News on condition of anonymity.

The Ministry of Defense was formally barred from building space systems until 2008 when Japan’s Basic Space Law overrode a 1969 resolution committing Japan to using space exclusively for peaceful purposes.

In addition to making space programs fair game for the Ministry of Defense, the Basic Space Law called for restructuring control of Japan’s space development budgets and programs away from competing ministries and into a single Cabinet-level agency. The 2008 law also called for Japan to double its space spending between 2010 and 2020 and to pursue programs that contribute to its national security.

In response to this direction, the Ministry of Defense in 2009 released a report detailing a long list of space programs it might be interested in developing.

However, Japan’s latest National Defense Program Guidelines — a planning document produced every five years — is much less specific.

The document, approved by the Security Council in December, focuses on the ministry’s role in developing military space programs aimed at bolstering the nation’s space-based surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

For now, officials said, the Ministry of Defense is researching when and if to develop a series of capabilities, including its own space-based early warning system, a signals intelligence satellite, a communications satellite, reconnaissance satellites and experimental microsatellites.

But with so many decisions to be thought through, these officials said, the ministry will hold off on starting any development programs until 2016, when the next five-year Defense Program Guidelines is due.

For example, the Ministry of Defense is questioning whether it can afford and really needs a space-based infrared missile warning satellite for its fleet of Aegis cruisers and Patriot missile batteries, according to one official.

“When we consider a cost-benefit analysis [of a space-based early warning system] we should consider the U.S.-Japan relationship,” the official said Feb. 8. “We get enough data from the U.S., so we should find out exactly what new capabilities we could get from our own satellite. If we can get appreciable benefit and if we think it is affordable, then we can consider development.”

Part of the issue for the defense ministry’s conservatism is concern about future budgets, said Satoshi Tsuzukibashi, director of the Office of Defense Production at the Japan Business Federation.

Thirty months after enactment of the Basic Space Law, Japan has yet to form a new agency to coordinate national space programs and the sought-after budget increase has yet to materialize

“The most difficult problem is budget. If there is a specific budget provided for the [Ministry of Defense], the [ministry] will move ahead and promote its space programs without troubling its commitments to land, air and marine forces,” Tsuzukibashi said Feb. 9.



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A graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where he won the Horgan Prize for Excellence in Science Writing, Paul Kallender-Umezu is co-author of “In Defense of Japan: From the Market to the Military in Space Policy” (Stanford University...