TOKYO — Japan’s latest space policy document places the country’s Information Gathering Satellite (IGS) system at the heart of its national security reconnaissance and disaster monitoring strategy, leaving decisions on any future military space capabilities to the Ministry of Defense.

The 46-page Basic Plan, released Jan. 25 by the Space Strategy Headquarters, says Japan should continue to fund the development and launch of increasingly capable IGS satellites with an eye toward maintaining a constellation of two optical and two radar imaging satellites, Hiroshi Yamakawa, a member of the seven-member Space Policy Commission that drafted the report, said Feb. 14 in an emailed response to SpaceNews questions.

“Essentially it’s no change, the IGS remains the centerpiece of disaster monitoring and national security,” Yamakawa said.

Following a series of snags over the past decade, the IGS program, initiated following an August 1998 North Korean missile test that overflew Japan, should finally have two functional radar satellites on orbit following the Jan. 27 launch of the IGS-Radar 4 spacecraft. That launch, aboard an H-2A rocket, also carried an experimental optical IGS satellite into orbit.

The latest version of the Basic Plan, which lays out priorities for most of Japan’s space development for five years starting in April 2013, does not specify budgets for particular programs and essentially leaves the current structure intact, said Kazuto Suzuki, a Japanese space expert and visiting fellow at the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, Princeton, N.J.

The plan maintains the system in which the Cabinet Satellite Intelligence Center (CSIC) controls the IGS program with a budget that is kept separate from the rest of Japan’s space development program, he said. The IGS program is funded at about 60 billion yen ($642 million) to 65 billion yen annually, according to budget documents.

“In the context of the Basic Plan, IGS is regarded as an independent program. The Prime Minister’s office has its own plan and budget for developing and maintaining the IGS system and I think the current structure is considered good enough,” Suzuki said in a Feb. 13 email.

But Norihiro Sakamoto, a research fellow and space analyst at the Tokyo Foundation, characterized the no-change policy as a missed opportunity to better integrate the IGS system with future disaster monitoring programs featuring civilian satellites.

The CSIC was heavily criticized in Japan for withholding satellite observation data of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japanese coastal areas on March 11, 2011. While the latest Basic Plan stresses the need for Japan to build an integrated data platform to expand and expedite data access and utilization for uses such as disaster monitoring, Sakamoto said IGS data will be kept separate.

Walling off IGS from programs, including the much lower-cost Asnaro optical and radar satellites being developed by the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry, means potential synergies will not be exploited, Sakamoto said.

Sakamoto also said Ansaro appears to be a better investment than IGS. “The IGS system is ineffective, expensive and inefficient. Asnaro satellites will cost around 5 billion yen a unit. Japan could maintain a constellation of 20 Asnaro satellites for the same price as maintaining four IGS satellites for about 62 billion yen a year. The Basic Plan is a missed opportunity,” he said Feb. 14.

Suzuki said the Basic Plan was necessarily left vague to take into account policy changes that might be implemented by the Liberal Democratic Party under Shinzo Abe, which returned to power in December 2012 after three years in opposition.

In its election manifesto, the party made general promises to improve Japan’s satellite-based reconnaissance abilities and to boost funding for space development to enhance national security, without being specific about programs or schedules.

Under the Basic Plan, military space development is left to the Ministry of Defense, which will form its own five-year policy by the end of 2013, ministry spokesman Takaaki Ohno said Feb. 14.

In 2009 the ministry produced a shopping list of defensive military space capabilities it was interested in developing, including missile warning satellites. But the ministry has kept most of its space programs on limited study budgets due to its inability to secure additional funds from the Ministry of Finance, Sakamoto said.



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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...