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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Japan Spies Space Potential

TOKYO -- Already equipped with some of the world's most sophisticated weapons, Japan's military has now turned its attention to space and wants to spend billions of dollars to place spy satellites in orbit.

In a secret study recently revealed in Japanese dailies, the Defense Ministry said it would cost about 1 trillion yen ($10 billion) to develop five to seven military spy satellites.

A top Defense Ministry bureaucrat confirmed the report existed but refused to reveal contents. The ministry has not formally requested funds for such a program.

"This is still on a study level and part of our overall research into available forms of arms technology," Vice Defense Minister Shigeru Hatayama told the daily Mainichi Shimbun. The plan, if stretched across several years, would not be too costly for Japan, which spends about $40 billion on defense a year.

Spy satellites could give the Self-Defense Forces a round-the-clock ability to track military units and weapons, such as ballistic missiles launched by North Korea.

It would enable the forces to shed an embarrassing dependence on second-hand information from Washington.

The Defense Ministry began the study last October, five months after North Korea shocked Japan by test-firing its Rodong-1 ballistic missile into waters just off the coast of Noto peninsula in the Sea of Japan.

U.S. spy satellites caught the launch and tracked its trajectory. Japan was caught off guard.

A spy program would also boost Japan's space industry, trying hard to justify the cost of the H-2 rocket, Japan's first indigenous satellite launcher.

At about twice the launch cost of an Arianespace rocket, the H-2 program could end in a dismal business failure if the Japanese space agency were unable to land more contracts. Military spy satellites would beef up Japan's arsenal of high-tech weaponry.

Japan's navy is the only one outside the U.S. Navy with Aegis air-defense cruisers. It is also the first nation to order four of the latest Airborne Early Warning and Control planes, to be built by Boeing on an B-767 airframe.

In remote-sensing technology, Japan is also catching up.

By the year 2000, the government's Science and Technology Agency has plans to launch an earth observation satellite that could identify an object 2.5 meters in diameter, by using infrared sensors that can see through clouds or at night.

Although short of the high resolution of a U.S. satellite that can "read" license plates on cars, the Japanese satellite would identify warplanes, ships and missiles.

The prospect of Japanese satellites hovering above bases and troops could raise alarm about Tokyo's military ambitions.

Only China, Russia and the United States are known to have earth observation satellites for exclusive military use.

To allay such fears about Japan's ambitions, an affiliate but independent organ of the Defense Ministry is about to start discussions with Asia-Pacific countries for a joint program to operate a military observation satellite network.

"This will not be designed for Japan only," said Michiharu Sekiya, a senior official of the Defense Research Center and former dean of Japan's Defense Academy. "It will part of confidence-building measures in the region."

Sekiya's team of researchers plans to travel to Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, China and South Korea in September and October.