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Growing Threats in Space

April 14, 2023
Yasuhito Fukushima


As space debris proliferates and state aggression increasingly involves space weapons and technology, space security is of growing relevance to both policymakers and the general public alike. In this interview, Yasuhito Fukushima, a visiting scholar at the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation and a senior research fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies in Japan, talks about how and why space is emerging as a key new global security domain, as well as Japan’s growing efforts to use space for defense purposes. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you first become interested in security and space?

I first became interested in national security issues 20 years ago when I took a course on national security at Keio University. At that time, it was rare for a university in Japan to offer a course on national security. Professor Hideaki Kaneda, a retired Vice Admiral of the Maritime Self-Defense Force, taught that course. I was also fortunate to take Professor Ken Jimbo’s seminars on international security a few years later. Having learned more theoretically about the issues from him, I began to think I would like to research the topic more deeply.

I became interested in space policy thanks to Professor Motohiro Tsuchiya at Keio University. After returning from a sabbatical at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Professor Tsuchiya told me that space security was becoming a hot issue in addition to cybersecurity and Arctic security. At the time, I was looking for a research topic for my doctoral thesis, and I began to think that I could conduct unique research by combining national security and space policy, as there were very few scholars in Japan studying space activities from the perspective of national security. I was also fortunate that Professor Setsuko Aoki, a well-known scholar of international space law, was teaching at the graduate school.

How is space different than other security areas?

Space security is often described as a new security agenda alongside cybersecurity. But in reality, outer space has been used for military purposes for over 60 years. The Soviet Union and the United States were the first to introduce satellite utilization to the military, but later many other countries followed. Japan, too, has been using outer space for defense purposes for more than 40 years.

On the other hand, the importance of space security has only recently been widely recognized among both policymakers and the general public. Space security is getting closer attention as risks against the safe and stable use of outer space are becoming more serious, while our economic and daily activities are increasingly reliant on space services such as satellite positioning and satellite communications.

For countries like the United States and Japan, what are the biggest potential threats in space?

There are two types of threats against space activities. One is unintentional threats like space debris. Since the late 2000s, congestion in outer space has been increasingly recognized among space experts. That’s because, in 2007, China conducted its first successful direct ascent anti-satellite missile test and destroyed its own satellite in orbit, creating thousands of pieces of space debris. Two years later, for the first time in history, a satellite collided with another satellite in outer space, creating thousands of additional space debris. On top of that, companies are launching more and more satellites. SpaceX now operates around 4,000 Starlink satellites and plans to launch additional satellites to provide Internet access worldwide. Due to the increasing number of objects in outer space, the risk of collision among satellites or space debris is escalating, especially in low Earth orbit.

The other threat in space is an intentional one, that is, the hostile use of counterspace capabilities that are designed to disrupt opponents’ space use. For example, satellites can be destroyed by direct ascent anti-satellite missiles, as China demonstrated in 2007. Space use can also be hindered by interfering with the signals between satellites and user terminals or ground stations. During the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the United States developed counterspace capabilities and deployed them to some extent, but they never used such capabilities in combat. But now, counterspace capabilities are proliferating, and countries have more incentive to use such weapons as the reliance on space is increasing globally. Not only the United States and Russia but also other countries like China, India, and even North Korea have counterspace capabilities. In addition to China, India conducted its first successful direct ascent anti-satellite missile testing destroying its own satellite in 2019. In the case of North Korea, they have jammers that can disrupt the use of GPS signals.

Russia and Ukraine have worked extensively during the war to try to disrupt each other’s space use. Just before the ground invasion in February last year, Russia conducted a cyber-attack against the Viasat’s satellite communication system that was used by the Ukrainian military. Russia is also conducting cyber attacks and jamming against Starlink in Ukraine, although Russia has not succeeded in stopping Ukraine’s use of Starlink altogether. In addition, Russia is believed to have interfered with the GPS signals in and around Ukraine. Ukraine, too, is reportedly using GPS jammers to disrupt the Russian use of drones that rely on satellite positioning signals to know their locations.

How has the attitude in Japanese society about defense and security evolved over the past few decades, particularly in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

That’s a really important question. Traditionally, many of the Japanese public thought that if Japan did not initiate a war, then war could be avoided. Such thinking is based on the experience of World War II. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine showed that war could happen even when the people do not want it. In East Asia, North Korea has repeatedly launched missiles, sometimes over Japan. Tensions are rising in the Taiwan Strait. Against this backdrop, the Japanese people are beginning to think of war and defense as pressing issues. And public opinion is increasingly in favor of strengthening defense capabilities.

Japan’s new national security strategy covers new domains and addresses new challenges, including space. What makes this new national security strategy so significant?

In December 2022, the cabinet approved three strategic documents—the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy, and Defense Buildup Program. Those documents do not change the direction of Japan’s defense space policy. Still, they will substantially enhance related efforts by considerably increasing the size of space budgets and organizations of the Ministry of Defense. Japan plans to rebrand and restructure the Air Self-Defense Force to the Air and Space Self-Defense Force.

What will you be doing in your time at IGCC?

At IGCC, I’m researching U.S. policy on defense innovation, focusing on the space domain and also examining implications for great power competition between the United States and China. I’m working alongside Director Tai Ming Cheung, who is the leading authority on defense innovation research. Captain Scott Tait (Ret.), Executive Director of the National Security Innovation Catalyst, has also taught me much about related initiatives in San Diego. On top of that, many space-related startups and some defense innovation-related organizations are on the west coast. IGCC is quite an ideal place to research U.S. policy on defense innovation in the space domain.

Read more by Yasuhito Fukushima:

Japan endeavors to utilize space for defense purposes

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