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Space Could Be the Next Battlefield for China and Japan

War in the "fourth battlefield" is just beginning and Japan is leading the way with a new military unit.

Space war is very likely the next frontier for human conflict, and after spending the past few decades with barely any military at all, Japan is taking practical steps to reach for the stars, for wars.

According to a source who leaked the story to the Kyodo news agency, the Japanese Defense Ministry is planning on creating a space force made up of Air Self Defense Force personnel by 2019.

At first, they'll be using advanced satellite and telescopic observatory technology on earth to track the heavens for dangerous debris like old rocket parts and satellites still floating around in space.

Space debris is no joke, but at the same time, the Japanese space watchmen will be working in conjunction with their American allies, updating US Strategic Command with space related intel on the "fourth battlefield."

That might just mean watching for Chinese ballistic missiles that have been popping up in space of late. It's no secret China and its North Korean ally have openly been testing ICBM technology that can reach low Earth orbit, which makes the neighboring Japanese very nervous.

The same source told Kyodo that the Americans and Japanese have been keeping a close watch on Chinese space ambitions since 2007, when the emerging superpower shot down one of its own satellites with a missile.

The missile test, an act of showy geopolitical strength, not only sent debris everywhere on a collision course with other satellites, but it demonstrated that the Chinese can blow stuff up in space with the push of a button on earth. 

Alarm bells went off for the Americans and Japanese. In May of this year, as Kyodo reports, both countries formally discussed their increased cooperation in space with one another, a strange move belying other, more worldly geopolitical reasons for their sudden interest in space.

"Space–along with the cyber realm–must these days be regarded as one of the key domains for military capability alongside land, sea and air," Peter Felstead, a defense expert and editor of Jane's Defense Weekly, told me via email. "If you have hi-res eyes in space, that gives you the jump on whether, for example, North Korea is preparing to launch a ballistic missile (one of which flew directly over Japan in 2009)."

In addition to worrying about thousands of pieces of space debris floating around Earth's orbit, the US and Japan are profoundly concerned about the potential for China to dominate the Asia-Pacific region here on planet Earth. 

In recent years, tensions between the Chinese and the Japanese have manifested themselves as a lot of sabre rattling over contested islands in the South China sea. The new space race can be viewed as just an extension of that overall chess match to dominate their spheres of influence.

And for the same reason the Japanese are tinkering with their World War II-era pacification, which forced them to largely disarm. The emergence of China means the US needs a major military partner to contain the Chinese, while they make their "pivot" away from the Middle East and into the Pacific.

"China's increasing military might and manoeuvres in places like the South China Sea are a major spur to the upgrading of Japan's military capabilities," said Felstead, adding that the North Korean nuclear threat also remains a continuing fear for Japanese national security.

This brewing potential Pacific war has sent the Japanese into a military procurement frenzy. After building themselves their biggest naval destroyer since WWII, they've been buying a lot of fancy new toys in addition to those they engineer on their own.

Global Hawk

Japan just bought $372 million worth of Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk drones to outfit their new UAV fleet, and they're outfitting a new futuristic navy, and buying F-35s to counter the potential threat of China's own, next generation, the J20 stealth fighter.

"The Japanese are developing a lot of defense capabilities on their own without the need to buy them," said Felstead. "Japan has built its own warships (including helicopter destroyers), airlifters, [and] tanks. It has also license-produced US aircraft designs for decades and is now a participant in the international F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme." 

All of the earthly armaments Japan is making and taking is forecasting a future where space will be inhabited by the same sort of war machines. Even Lockheed Martin, the maker of the F-35 that Japan and every other western ally is in line to procure, has designs for a future where space-specific fighters are the norm.

They've announced designs for the SR-72 Blackbird, a space-born, unmanned aircraft Lockheed says will be capable of "speeds up to Mach 6, or six times the speed of sound," enabling the plane to creep up on an "adversary" that "would have no time to react or hide." Pitched as an heir to the SR-71, the SR-72 could also be a spy plane, but Lockheed also mentions that "hypersonic aircraft, coupled with hypersonic missiles, could penetrate denied airspace and strike at nearly any location across a continent in less than an hour."

The company says it could be ready as early as 2030.

SR-72

In other words, while NATO nations and allies like Japan wait for their long-delayed and over-budget F-35 shipments, the next big ticket purchase could be autonomous space fighters capable of monitoring or shooting down Chinese missiles in the low Earth orbit. 

Japan's moves to extend their military ambitions and infrastructure to space is par for the course as compared to their Western allies. Canada's space agency is a wing of the Department of National Defence, and NASA's own connection with the US Army is well documented.

In the end, though, the Japanese military's expansion into space is really an evolution of their conflict with China, dating back centuries: An old war in a new frontier.