Defense: The Next-Generation Rockets That Japan Could Use To Protect Itself

Uncertainties about U.S. policy in Asia will affect the security postures of allies in the region. Japan, for one, is going to tilt even more toward its own national security space ventures. As the country’s defense minister Tomomi Inada urged recently, the time is ripe for Japan to reevaluate how best to protect itself.

At a practical level, space assets are going to loom large in any reevaluations about protecting Japan’s security. Two are worth watching, both of which I wrote about at early stages last year. As 2016 comes to a close, both have progressed and are worth a reassessment in the new geopolitical context for Japan.

Back to Orbital Debris

The first involves spacecraft, wrapped up in the familiar saga of orbital debris. The space technologies for getting rid of orbital debris can also serve national security purposes. In my July 2015 column, I drew attention to a leading Japanese company, Nitto Seimo, whose roots go back over a century to 1910 when it started off making fishing nets. Nitto Seimo has been collaborating with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to extend some of its knotless net technology business to outer space.

On December 10, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and JAXA notified the public of the successful launch of the H-IIB rocket, carrying the Kounotori cargo ship to the International Space Station (ISS). After four days, it docked successfully with the ISS and began unloading its cargo.

Its return journey is of significance. Normally, the cargo ship reenters the atmosphere and burns up; this time, however it is going to carry out a KITE experiment, short for Kounotori Integrated Tether Experiment. If all goes well, a 700 meter electrodynamic tether will unfurl and attempt to deorbit especially large pieces of debris, considered hazardous for space safety. A depiction for how this might work is available for viewing at Nitto Seimo’s website, the company that built the “conductive net tether” for the forthcoming experiment.

Earlier, I wrote that if Japan could deploy a net in partnership with a company to capture space junk it sends a signal that it can also trap functional space objects belonging to others. Or if Japan could develop electrodynamic tethers to slow down and drag non-functioning objects into the atmosphere, it could also shackle or debilitate the working spacecraft of others.

So while cleaning up space debris is a worthy goal, these national security realities in orbital cleanup must be kept firmly in mind.

Forward to Epsilon

The second thing to keep an eye on is the fate of Japan’s advanced solid rocket, Epsilon. The three-stage Epsilon rocket is a descendant of the M-V that is widely hailed as one of the top solid-propellant rockets in the world. In another column in May 2015, I drew attention to Epsilon’s significant implications for Japan’s national security directions.

Epsilon’s successful maiden flight in 2013 is being followed up at the end of this year, and the countdown to its launch date has begun. The company involved in the design and manufacture of Epsilon is IHI Aerospace, with the stated goal of launching small satellites. Both IHI Aerospace and JAXA have touted the rocket’s technical advances geared toward faster and more efficient launches, such as an autonomous on-board checkout system and remote mobile control via a few personal computers.

Epsilon still has to establish a track record. Whether it can allow Japan to break into the small satellite launch market remains to be seen. But it has a dual use. This is because as I noted earlier like virtually all space technologies, it can cut across both commercial and military realities. The logic with which Japan cautions the world about other countries advancing or testing ICBM technologies under the guise of civilian space development also applies with equal force to the development and testing of the Epsilon. Its predecessor, the M-V that was retired in 2006, was marked as having capabilities similar to the U.S. MX Peacekeeper. The Epsilon continues Japan's independent technology strides in solid-propellant rocketry, and can significantly affect the prospects for the country's ICBM capabilities.  Down the road it can give Japan whole new ways of deterrence and defense options under its control.

Poised to Pivot

Japan’s national security space gambit makes sense from the perspective of a militarily weaker power in a world in flux. Japan is also being called upon to do more for its own defense by the incoming U.S. president, Donald Trump.

Next-generation space technology, unlike the nuclear option, allows Japan to do just that while also balancing its domestic pacifist orientations. Japan’s leadership is poised to pivot more openly toward strategic space-based means of deterrence and coercive diplomacy. These moves should be of keen interest to the country’s allies and rivals in the years ahead. (source)


Share this

Related Posts

Next Post »