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Aerospace & Defense

Japan's fledgling space force targets satellite protection

Tokyo seeks closer cooperation with US against new security risks

The NanoRacks debris-removal satellite is deployed by the International Space Station. Tracking space junk will be one of the space force's missions. (photo courtesy of NASA)

TOKYO -- Japan's Self-Defense Forces has established its first dedicated squadron for space operations, aiming to track suspicious satellites and space debris to protect the nation's spy satellites starting around 2023.

As an initial step, the roughly 20-person team, part of the Air Self-Defense Force, will focus on training personnel and planning surveillance methods, as well as hammering out a framework for cooperating with the U.S.

"In order to adapt to this new security environment as soon as possible, we must quickly prepare space situational awareness" capabilities, said Defense Minister Taro Kono Monday.

Outer space is poised to become a major battlefield as countries scramble to seize the initiative and establish deterrents against rival powers. The U.S. in late 2019 inaugurated the Space Force as the sixth branch of its military.

Countries including the U.S., Russia, China and India have conducted tests of anti-satellite weapons on their own satellites, which is not banned under international law. While destroying another country's satellites is clearly illegal, the general consensus is that such an act would not be enough to merit armed retaliation.

"There's a lot of vagueness around what sort of obstructive behavior is illegal," said Setsuko Aoki, a professor of international law at Keio University in Tokyo. Gray areas include jamming GPS satellites or knocking satellites out of orbit via a cyberattack.

Tokyo looks to work more closely with Washington in space defense. Japan in 2018 participated in a simulated space awareness drill with the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance -- which includes the U.S. and Australia -- along with France and Germany.

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