Op-Ed | To shore up U.S. space dominance, Biden administration must boost Japan-U.S. alliance


Bernice Glenn is senior adviser for Pacific strategy and a board member of the International Security Industry Committee – Japan. 

The recent report in the Financial Times that China tested a space-based, nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August set off alarm bells in international military circles.

The discovery of this previously unknown capability is just the latest example of China’s increased prowess, not just in ballistic missiles, but also in all weaponry.

U.S. military makers are nervous and looking for solutions.

“I don’t know if it’s quite a Sputnik moment, but I think it’s very close to that,” said Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

“While America is still the dominant military power on the planet today, we are being more effectively challenged militarily than at any other time in our history,” said U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall in September,

Nowhere has this been more evident than in space.

Gen. John Raymond, chief of the U.S. Space Force, pointedly stated that China is “developing a series of capabilities to deny us our access to space and to keep us from having those advantages.”

Of particular concern, Raymond cited reversible jammers, directed energy weapons, such as lasers, and kinetic missiles as examples of technologies that China could use to disable or destroy U.S. or allied satellites.

Enter Japan.

For several years, Washington and Tokyo have coordinated on military projects, but they have been inhibited by structural impediments on both sides.

As the Biden administration looks for ways to counter China in space, here is a recipe that leverages Japan’s considerable capabilities.

Break down barriers to collaboration

First, expand the ability of Japanese companies to participate in U.S. Defense Department programs. Japan has built a robust space expertise over the past several decades. According to an April 2020 study, the Department of Defense has benefitted from this expertise on specific projects.

Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond (left) and an official with Japan’s Office of National Space Policy sign a December 2020 memorandum of understanding. Credits: U.S. Air Force/ Cabinet Office, Japan

Currently, however, existing policies are preventing Japanese firms from participating in important, dual-use research and development initiatives that could help the United States maintain its lead in space.

The Pentagon should encourage and promote participation by Japanese firms in these programs. It should allow for participation from U.S. companies and universities teaming with vetted Japanese technology partners, as well as direct participation from Japanese firms.

Reform U.S. export and import rules

U.S. export control laws and import regulations remain a pervasive barrier to accessing cutting edge technology from allied countries.

According to a 2019 report from the Atlantic Council, many U.S. allies, including Japan, have seen advances in technology, beyond the current capabilities of the U.S., and have developed expertise in specialized areas of defense-unique capabilities.

But current U.S. laws, built for the Cold War, have made such technologies unattainable. These laws are the largest disincentive to Japanese firms seeking to engage with the Defense Department.

For the Biden administration to tap the technological capabilities of allies, such as Japan and its leading commercial technology firms, it must change U.S. these laws.

Ramp up a dedicated U.S.-Japan consortium: Next, the Pentagon should work with the Honolulu-based Pacific International Center for High Technology Research (PICHTR) to set up a new U.S.-Japan space technology consortium at a meeting later this month.

Since November 2020, PICHTR has been working with the Japanese government on a variety of dual-use technology issues, including space. PICHTR can serve as a trusted partner to both sides in developing new systems, processes and procedures which could encourage close collaboration between the U.S. and Japanese governments and private companies.

Expand existing cooperation

Finally, the Biden administration should look for opportunities to expand direct cooperation with Japan. This includes expanding an existing memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the U.S. Space Force and Japan’s Office of National Space Policy on space policy signed in December 2020.

The MoU will not only allow a Japanese liaison officer to be based at U.S. Space Command headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, but allow the United States to launch two military payloads from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center.

The payloads, which will launch in 2023 and 2024, feature Space Domain Awareness optical sensors. They are deemed essential to protect space operations of the U.S., Japan, and other partners from threats from China.

The MoU can serve as a test bed for experimentation and identification of key Japanese technologies that supports DOD’s overall space strategy.

For the U.S. to maintain its superiority in space and counter the rise of China, the Biden administration will need to make good on this vision and work more closely with Japan.