How to Deepen U.S.-Japan Space Cooperation to Meet the Urgent Security Challenges Ahead

The last two years have seen a transformational change in Japan’s approach to space security, with space capabilities now featured prominently in Tokyo’s national security and defense strategies. While Japan has long been considered one of the world’s most advanced spacefaring nations, its accomplishments have occurred largely in civil space exploration and science. Intensifying threats in the region have led to a new emphasis on leveraging the space domain for national defense, and the need for deeper partnerships at the policy, operational, and industrial levels to deliver space capabilities on timelines paced to the threat. On the eve of Prime Minister Kishida’s visit to Washington, there is a substantive space agenda that the leaders can advance to bolster the security of both nations.

Tokyo’s Space Security Stakes

While Japan’s 2008 Basic Space Law created the legal basis for the country to pursue national security space activities, its 2022 security documents provided the impetus for “radically expand[ing] the use of space systems for national security.” Sitting in the middle of a complex Indo-Pacific security environment, Japan’s regional security concerns are dominated by expanding Chinese and North Korean military arsenals and antagonistic activities, while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine presages what aggression in the region could look like. Tokyo has set 2027 as a key milestone for strengthening its national defense with space capabilities as one part of a broader strategic effort that includes force modernization, munitions acquisitions, infrastructure improvements, and enhanced training and exercises. 

Tokyo has outlined its national security space architecture plans in a Space Security Initiative, released in June 2023. Architectural components include satellites that can detect and track missiles, including hypersonic weapons; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance satellites to provide insights on land and maritime threats and targeting coordinates for counterstrike systems; space-based communications satellites; positioning and navigation satellites; and space surveillance sensors, all supported with a suite of government and commercial space launch vehicles. 

Funding is following the plans. Over the next 10 years, the Japanese government has committed one trillion yen ($6.6 billion) toward developing Japan’s domestic space industry, with funding administered by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Also, over the next five years, an additional one trillion yen is anticipated to be allocated for space security. Like the United States and others, Japan recognizes the economic and technological benefits of space and how its investments create a demand signal to spur private sector innovation and attract technical talent. It also sees advances in the space domain helping to solve global sustainability, resource management, and disaster relief challenges here on Earth.

Growing Prominence in the Bilateral Relationship

The importance of the U.S.-Japanese relationship is highlighted throughout the 2022 Japanese security and defense documents. Increasing security cooperation with the United States is stressed numerous times as part of Tokyo’s strategic approach to achieving its goals.

As the countries continue to deepen their relationship, space has become more prominent in high-level discussions between the two nations. In January 2023, President Biden and Prime Minister Kishida announced a bilateral space agreement, further cementing cooperation on space exploration, while also discussing the need to better align force postures in the space domain. The nations’ defense and foreign ministers now regularly highlight the growing importance of space to stability, security, and economic prosperity, and the need to deepen operational cooperation and interoperability. Both nations’ space leaders convene regularly through a comprehensive space dialogue, with the most recent dialogue in March 2023 including business leaders for the first time to discuss U.S.-Japan space industry collaboration. 

A Bilateral Space Security Agenda

With a shared understanding of the threat environment, alignment of strategic interests, strong leadership and political support, and commitment of personnel and resources, now is the time to advance a comprehensive agenda for space security cooperation. 

First, this is the time for clarity and urgency. The threat environment with North Korea’s expanding weapons of mass destruction and missile capabilities, Chinese proclamations of achieving military readiness goals by 2027, and continued Russian aggression demands unprecedented cooperation and alignment between Japan and the United States on a myriad of national security fronts, including in space. A clear and bold clarion call by both leaders is needed to move their respective institutions and industries into action. This holds true for the space sector, where designing and building satellites is a multiyear, resource intensive effort. For example, supporting Tokyo’s objective of reinforcing its missile warning capabilities by 2027 requires decisions now on what space-based missile warning systems to acquire and how to acquire them. 

Second, Japan’s defense organizations have had less exposure to and involvement in building and operating space systems at scale as well as integrating space into joint operations. Building such knowledge and proficiency starts with education and training, which serves as the foundation for the space security relationship. 

Japan’s decades-old limitation that space be used only for “non-military” purposes led its space ecosystem to grow around civilian space missions. As a result, Japan’s defense institutions and supporting industry have limited experience in military space system development and military space operations. This has been reinforced by longstanding Japan-U.S. space cooperation centered on space science, human spaceflight, and expanding to cislunar and the Moon through NASA’s Artemis program and Artemis Accords.

Seasoned U.S. space institutions across government and academia could partner with Japan’s Ministry of Defense (JMOD) and Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) to provide civilian and military personnel with greater space domain knowledge. This could include invitations by the U.S. Space Force to attend “Space 100” courses, Defense Acquisition University space acquisition courses, and immersive tabletop exercises that enable a better understanding of the principles of operating in space, the role of space in joint operations, and space deterrence concepts.

Further, as JMOD expands into new mission areas, like space domain awareness (SDA) where satellites in orbit can maneuver to characterize other objects in space, training that draws from U.S. operational know-how will give them a leg up once their SDA systems are fielded. Japan’s first SDA satellite is planned for launch in 2026. This also benefits the United States by having additional “neighborhood watch” assets to identify unfriendly or unusual satellite behaviors in-orbit. The anticipated establishment of a U.S. Space Force command element in Japan in 2024 would facilitate further opportunities for training, exercises, and collaboration at the operational level. Additionally, with Japan joining the Combined Space Operations initiative, it joins a cohort of countries working to improve multilateral space coordination and operations. 

Third, both leaders can emphasize the importance of industrial partnerships for delivering military space capabilities on relevant timeframes. The quickest way for Japanese industry to build proficiency in military space systems and operations is by partnering with U.S. industry. Further, while Tokyo’s increased investment in space security is significant, it is insufficient to bring to fruition the multiple different space systems described in the Space Strategic Initiative. On the U.S. side, defense budgets are likely to be flat or declining. Setting clear priorities, leveraging existing satellite production lines, and building interoperable systems adds needed capacity and resiliency for both countries, in a timely manner, while also allowing them to efficiently allocate resources. 

In the area of missile warning and tracking, one initiative would be to partner on the U.S. Space Development Agency’s Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture, thus enabling Japan to take an incremental approach to a military space mission it is new to. Japanese industry could lean on U.S. industrial partners to learn the mission and quickly field an initial capability, while building up domestic production capacity. Partnerships to rapidly scale up Japan’s intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting capabilities could be forged across Japanese and U.S. commercial remote sensing companies.

Fourth, collaboration will need to be fostered beyond satellite development to include understanding the complexities of ground system architectures, data processing and analysis. To enable counterstrike, JASDF will need to improve its proficiency in analysis and targeting. The Bilateral Intelligence Analysis Cell, established in November 2022, aims to do just that with Japanese and U.S. analysts jointly analyzing video feeds from remotely piloted aircraft. It could be expanded to incorporate space-based remote sensing data. Similarly, initiatives that enable Japanese analysts to gain experience and experiment with space-based missile warning data will be important to creating a more effective, holistic end-to-end capability.

Fifth, leaders should commit to enhancing information sharing between the two countries. The current information sharing paradigm is largely emails and PDFs not space threat information or operational data. An information exchange model often cited is the trilateral mechanism between the United States, Japan, and South Korea that enables real-time data sharing on North Korean missile launches. Candidates for greater information sharing include space threat assessments and SDA data from terrestrial and space-based sensors. Such information sharing can also support both nations’ leadership efforts to reduce space threats through the promotion of principles and norms for responsible space activities.

Lastly, the bilateral space agenda should also include a digital resiliency component. Tokyo is attuned to the importance of continuity of operations, seeing Russian cyberattacks against Ukrainian satellite and ground networks and natural disasters affecting critical infrastructure such as the Fukushima nuclear power plant damaged by a 2011 earthquake. Partnerships with U.S. technology companies, especially in cloud and cybersecurity, could be particularly valuable in providing network resiliency and ensuring government continuity of operations.

But Barriers Persist

These agenda items can deliver material capabilities but will still need policymakers to knock down barriers. Chief among them are developing a data sharing policy that provides guidance on the technologies, capabilities, and mission knowledge that U.S. industry can share with their Japanese counterparts, and implementing security improvements, including legislation on security clearances extending from the military to industry. There is now clear recognition across Japanese government, industry, and academia that security—cybersecurity, information security, personnel security—is paramount to further U.S. space cooperation. As an area of strength within the United States, U.S. security experts across government and the private sector could be brought to Japan to share best practices. Further, the U.S. government is likely to seek a Technology Safeguards Agreement that governs the transfer and protection of sensitive space technologies, as it has done with other space allies.

Both countries’ export policies and regulations have been barriers to closer space cooperation and industry-to-industry partnerships. U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) hampers bilateral industry cooperation, with both U.S. and Japanese companies who have been encouraged to forge joint space acquisition partnerships citing ITAR and classification as issues. Notably, in recent months, Tokyo revised its principles on the transfer of defense equipment and technology, which is expected to enable greater export of military technologies and components and contribute to supply chain diversification.

Japan’s emphasis on space security is significant and creates opportunity. Its national security strategies are strongly linked to the policies and actions of the United States, with the bilateral relationship mentioned time and again as key to success. It is a force multiplier in the space domain and also adds resiliency. U.S. and Japanese leaders can harness this moment to shepherd deeper space cooperation, galvanize their public and private sectors to act with urgency, and demand the delivery of space capabilities that meet the security challenges ahead.

Kari A. Bingen is the director of the Aerospace Security Project and a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Kari Bingen
Director, Aerospace Security Project and Senior Fellow, International Security Program