Japan to Launch Spy Satellites
Move Is Attempt to Lessen Dependence on U.S. Intelligence
Under tight security, Japan is preparing to launch two spy satellites Friday that will mark the country's first military use of space and begin moving its intelligence agencies away from dependence on the United States.
The decision to launch the satellites, which analysts say will focus on North Korea and China, results from Japan's dissatisfaction with periodic restrictions that Washington places on sharing satellite intelligence and delays in notifying Japan's top officials of a 1998 missile launch by North Korea.
Knowledgeable sources differ on who was at fault -- Japan or the United States -- in the hours-long delay before Tokyo found out that a North Korean ballistic missile had soared over Japan on Aug. 31, 1998. But two months later, the Japanese government approved a program to put four satellites into orbit this year, with more to follow.
The program has quietly taken Japan another step away from the pacifist constitution that in theory prohibits the country from having a military, and from a 1969 pledge that Japan's space program would be only for "peaceful, nonmilitary" use. But with the slow pace of the steps, and with Japan worrying more and more about North Korea's attempts to acquire nuclear weapons and the growing power of China, there has been little public outcry.
Images from the satellites will not be as sharp as those from U.S. satellites. At a resolution of about one yard, the optical images are the same quality as those available from commercial satellites. But Japan will collect the information exclusively and have so-called "shutter control" of the satellites.
"This is a first step for Japan to obtain means to get information on its own," said Gen Nakatani, who headed Japan's Defense Agency until last September. "Japan should move away from being totally reliant on the U.S." He said the system would be upgraded with additional satellites and better resolution.
The first two satellites, one containing an optical sensor and the other a radar system that can peer through the dark and clouds, are scheduled for launch by a Japanese H-2A rocket from Tanegashima island in the Pacific Ocean.
If all goes according to plan, each will orbit about 300 miles up, passing over any location on Earth once each day. The optical satellite will be able to take color images of objects larger than about 15 feet and black-and-white images of items three feet in diameter.
Authorities have sidestepped the question of whether the satellites violate a parliamentary resolution and the space agency's charter prohibiting military use of space. The government says the satellite program is directed by a cabinet office, not the Defense Agency, and that the images will provide nonmilitary information for other ministries.
But critics aren't satisfied with such statements. "I'm against launching those satellites," said Eiji Miyagawa, head of a peace activist group based in the city of Fukuoka. "Whatever reasoning they give, the satellites' objective is to spy, which is a military action."
North Korea has harshly criticized the impending launch, describing it as a "hostile act" that poses a "grave threat." It also warned that the launch might release it from a pledge it made to Japan in September not to test-fire any missiles.
"North Korea's bellicose tone is nothing new. The Japanese government will not change its policy," responded Misako Kaji, a government spokeswoman.
In addition to North Korea, the satellites will likely surveil China, a growing regional rival, according to experts here.
Preparations for the launch have proceeded with unusual security. Reports here said the rocket components were delivered in unmarked crates, while coast guard ships patrolled waters near the launch site and riot squads were posted at the perimeter. Officials declined to discuss the security.
"The Japanese government is nervous," said Kyosuke Murakawa at Space Ref, a service that distributes space-related news on the Internet. "It's their first time to launch a spy satellite."
Japan relies politically and militarily on its alliance with the United States, and U.S. intelligence is regularly passed on to Japan. But there have been glitches. During a 1993-94 crisis over North Korea's nuclear program, Tetsuya Nashimoto, then head of Japan's Joint Staff Council, was not shown U.S. reconnaissance photos of North Korea, he said in an interview.
During the war in Afghanistan, the United States blocked access to photos of the region from Ikonos, then the only commercial reconnaissance satellite. There are now other commercial sources of images, although the most detailed pictures still are taken by U.S. spy satellites.
One worry for officials here is the lingering question about the H-2A rocket's reliability. Its predecessor, the H-2, had spectacular failures in 1998 and 1999, but the H-2A has worked well four times since.
"A successful launch is very important for Japan," Shuichiro Yamanouchi, president of Japan's National Space Development Agency, said at a recent meeting with reporters in Tokyo. "Space activity is a kind of symbol of the high technology of a nation."
Special correspondents Akiko Yamamoto and Sachiko Sakamaki contributed to this report.