A North Korean ballistic missile blasting through outer space in a three-dimensional Illustration. Image: iStock/Getty Images
A North Korean ballistic missile blasting through outer space in a three-dimensional Illustration. Image: iStock/Getty Images

North Korea’s preparations to launch a more advanced reconnaissance satellite with a high-resolution scanning capability threaten to push Asia’s space race deeper into the military theater.

The Kwangmyongsong-5 Earth-exploration satellite, likely to be packaged with a separate communications satellite, will technically allow North Korea to transmit data down to the ground for the first time, thus offering real-time intelligence for potential ballistic-missile strikes.

This is well short of the technological capacity needed to deploy orbital weapon systems, but will cause some unease among Asian power-brokers China, Japan and India as they pour money into the last strategic frontier of outer space.

Space programs in Asia have largely been driven by competition for the US$300 billion global commercial transponders market, which is expected to double by 2030 if demand holds.

A shift toward miniature satellites of less than 20 kilograms, mostly used by governments and smaller companies, has drawn nations as diverse as Singapore, Pakistan, Vietnam and South Korea into a field led by Japan and China, with India a more recent player.

An Indian GSLV-F09 rocket carrying a GSAT-9 satellite at the launch pad at Satish Dhawan Space Center on Sriharikota, an island off Andhra Pradesh. Photo/Indian Space Research Organization

Japan placed two satellites in different orbits for the first time late last month, displaying a technical edge aimed at reducing launch costs for commercial clients.

India announced this week that it had successfully tested a GSLV Mark III rocket that can lift a 4-ton satellite into orbit. In 2017, it managed to launch 104 satellites of varying sizes in just one operation.

China has loftier ambitions, including a lunar landing some time this year, after sending a roving module down a steep crater on the moon in 2013. About 40 Chinese launches are likely in 2018, mainly to boost communications.

India and Japan are both locked in undeclared space races with China that go well beyond commercial rivalries and have muddied the debate over North Korea’s shadowy aims.

Although largely defensive, the military wing of the space industry is accelerating and becoming more potent.

PLA Air Force fighter pilots pose at the Jiuquan space base in Gansu province, China. Photo: China Out/AFP

The Asian triumvirate of China, India and Japan contend that they are developing military applications and not weapons, though this is impossible to verify because their space programs have also become more secretive.

“Militarization” refers to any systems that enhance the capability of forces in a conventional setting, such as intelligence, communications and surveillance. “Weaponization” is the physical deployment of weapons in outer space or in a ground mode where they can be used to attack and destroy targets in orbit.

The United Nations Treaties and Principles on Outer Space prohibit the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in space, but the US has blocked efforts to ban space weapons outright. In 2007, Washington said it would “preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space.”

Wary of the Americans gaining an unassailable technological edge, China and Russia campaigned for a time for a weaponization ban, but then China shocked the world in 2007 by using a missile to destroy an obsolete weather satellite.

The following year an orbiting Chinese rocket released a micro-satellite that intruded into the exclusion zone of the International Space Station, just barely avoiding a collision. The US claims that China has also tagged without causing damage some of its observation satellites with high-powered lasers.

Satellites are now being used to enforce China’s claims to contested reefs and features in the South China Sea. In December, it was announced that three optical satellites would be launched this year to provide remote sensing coverage of the zone, presumably to monitor intruding foreign naval vessels.

China’s Long March V heavy lift launch system at a spaceport in southern China’s Hainan province. Photo: Xinhua

India had been a vocal critic of weaponization, but suddenly announced in 2012 that it was accelerating the development of anti-satellite weapons, apparently in response to China’s increased aggressiveness in space.

“We are only talking about having the capability. There are no plans for offensive space capabilities,” insisted V K Saraswat, chief scientist at the Indian government’s Defense Research and Development Organization.

Saraswat said the ASAT systems would be part of a missile defense shield tracking satellites used by China and Pakistan “before making a kinetic kill…. We are trying to build a credible deterrence capability,” he added.

Japan has adopted a similar stance, but with a commercial flavor. In 2015, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the space program would be shifted toward potential military uses after a ban on arms exports was lifted in 2014. Japan hopes to earn $42 billion from space hardware through 2025.

At the defensive end, Japan will add six more global-positioning satellites by 2025 so it no longer relies on allies including the US for battlefield capabilities such as navigating vehicles and guiding weapons systems.

It has also ordered more surveillance satellites for reconnaissance and intelligence operations, including the monitoring of military facilities and foreign satellites. One of their prime targets will no doubt be North Korea’s satellite launches and its growing stable of ballistic missiles.