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International relations

US and Japan plan fleet of low-orbit satellites to track missiles

More than 1,000 units to detect next-gen Chinese and North Korean weapons

A view of the Earth from the International Space Station, which lies in low-Earth orbit.   © Getty Images

TOKYO -- Japan and the U.S. plan to deploy a network of small satellites in low-Earth orbit to detect and track next-generation missiles being developed to evade current defense systems, Nikkei has learned.

The project is expected to cost over $9 billion under a U.S. plan and be operational by the mid-2020s. The two sides will hammer out the details of the arrangement.

The move is in response to the mounting breadth and sophistication of the missile arsenals being developed by China, Russia and North Korea. It also comes as nations begin to look at space as a final frontier for warfare.

China lifted this year's defense budget 6.6% to around $180 billion. It possesses about 2,000 medium-range missiles that are capable of striking Japan. Beijing has hundreds of nuclear warheads under its belt, and experts say the number will more than double over the next decade.

China has strategically leveraged its missile threat to keep other nations at bay while it engages in maritime expansionist activities. Beijing is using its missile arsenal to undermine the military balance in East Asia, and thereby lift its diplomatic clout.

North Korea, which has hundreds of Nodong medium-range missiles, continues in its quest to miniaturize nuclear warheads. Long-range missiles and nuclear weapons serve as bargaining chips in diplomatic relations with the U.S.

All of these threats use missiles that fly according to simple parabolic trajectories, making the weapons easy to track with satellite and radar systems put into place by Japan and the U.S. In the case of Japan, interceptors deployed on Aegis-equipped vessels, as well as surface-to-air Patriot missiles, are tasked with shooting down incoming missile in case of conflict.

A satellite to collect terrestrial, space environment and Earth-surface data under the U.S. Defense Meteorological Satellite Program. (Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

However, China, Russia and North Korea are developing new weapons designed to evade the U.S. and Japan's missile shields. China and Russia are making advances in hypersonic missiles -- which fly at great speeds at low altitudes. North Korea is experimenting with missiles that can change their trajectories.

Because the current satellite network operates at altitudes of 36,000 km, it will be difficult for them to detect these new missiles. Ground-based radars will not be fully up to the task either. This has fueled concerns that the missile defenses will be rendered incapacitated, negating the deterrence effect against hostile countries.

To address this, the U.S. plans to launch low-orbit satellites at altitudes between 300 km and 1,000 km. Washington looks to launch over 1,000 miniature observation satellites, with 200 equipped with heat-detecting infrared sensors designed for missile defense.

Japan plans to join in the project, likely by collaborating on sensor development and the miniaturization of satellites. Tokyo will consider assuming some of the responsibility for establishing a network of satellites around Japan, as well as costs.

Unlike a conventional satellite, which costs upward of hundreds of millions of dollars to manufacture and launch, the expense of a miniature satellite hovers around $5 million. The proximity to the Earth's surface, as well as the expansive coverage, will enable the satellites to gather more detailed information.

The network of satellites would include units equipped with optical telescopes and positioning systems. Those satellites would be able to grasp movements of warships, warplanes and ground troops. China's activities near Japan's Senkaku Islands -- which Beijing claims as Diaoyu -- would be simpler to pick up.

The system would allow Japan and the U.S. to boost intelligence sharing. On the security front, the two sides could deepen cooperation on China strategy.

Japan, which has no early detection satellites, relies on the U.S. for those capabilities. Until now, the Japanese government has unveiled plans to form a network of miniature satellites that will look for space debris and gather data on weather patterns and disaster prevention. An agreement with the U.S. on missile defense capabilities would add national security to the satellite policy.

The U.S. is due to launch 30 experimental satellites in 2022. Japan will allocate funds for infrared sensor development to the fiscal 2021 budget proposal.

Japan lags behind in developing its space program for national security purposes. Japan has launched 14 defense satellites as of February this year, a far cry from Washington's 128 satellites. China and Russia operate 109 and 106 defense satellites, respectively.

Russia and China have branched out to "killer satellites" that incapacitate other nation's satellites. The two nations are expanding their arsenal of antisatellite missiles as well. A large satellite constellation has the advantage of having several substitutes to take over if one satellite becomes inoperable.

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